Sly Deal For Two Foxes

August 26, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League announced recently that team owner DP Fox Sports had signed an exclusive, two-year broadcasting agreement with Clear Channel Communications, the broadcasting giant that owns several West Michigan radio stations including the soon-to-be Rampage “flagship station,” 101.3 FM WBFX.

The station, commonly known as “The Fox,” will broadcast all 16 Rampage regular season games in each of the next two seasons, starting in January 2006. The deal also includes broadcast rights to any playoff games that the Rampage might qualify for.

Clear Channel and DP Fox would not specify the financial details of the transaction. In a typical broadcast contract, the team sells the rights to air its contests to a broadcast network or individual station. The broadcaster then sells advertising time during the games. Advertising salespeople push the sporting contest as a valuable commodity with a broad audience, thus increasing the value of its advertising slots.

But will there be an audience for the Rampage? Moreover, is it appropriate to consider the team’s games a valuable commodity?

Two years ago, the Rampage won only one game. Last year, they won four. Attendance at the team’s Van Andel Arena home games has fallen by more than 20 percent since 2002.

“No question the last two years have not been outstanding for the Rampage,” said Bob Sack, senior vice president of sales and marketing for DP Fox Sports. He said Clear Channel is interested in the bigger picture. “They are confident in our organization, our ownership, our track record of overall success with various entities, that the team part of it will improve, that the marketing will continue to expand and there will be increased interest and growth.”

Sack said that Clear Channel is interested in the long-term growth of the Arena Football League as a whole. The high-profile owners (such as rocker-turned-actor-turned-entrepreneur Jon Bon Jovi and football legends like ex-Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway) helped secure a television deal with NBC. Ticket sales have been increasing. So in that sense, the recent woes of the Rampage are of little concern.

“They see the national sponsors come on board, they see the high-profile owners, and they see a league that just continues to increase its profile,” he said. “Inside of that is a well-run and well-operated local franchise that stumbled a little bit on the field the last two years, but that’s a blip on the radar screen.”

“We’re doing it because we feel that arena football and specifically the Grand Rapids Rampage are going to bring a level of excitement to the radio station sports-wise that’s going to be a good fit for the format, which is a male-targeted format,” said Skip Essick, vice president and regional market manager for Clear Channel West Michigan. He said the contract was not part of a larger nationwide agreement between Clear Channel and the Arena Football League. It was an independent decision made for this market.

“We were looking for something local to do with ‘The Fox’ and arena football seems to be a good match,” he said.

A good match, perhaps. But will there be a good audience? Both Sack and Essick admit that the nature of the Arbitron ratings system does not allow them to accurately judge how many fans are listening to a given game.

Combine an uncertain listening audience with the team’s two-year losing streak and it might be difficult to attract advertisers.

“Well, that’s what makes a good sales person,” said Essick. “I mean, you’re selling a whole concept. It’s not the kind of buy where you say, ‘We have X number of listeners.’ It’s the kind of buy that brings the advertiser into a local, exciting entertainment component of our community. And, along with that, I would assume that there would be other benefits that are going to be made available to that client — tickets and things like that.”

He said that Clear Channel may also opt to sell spots during Rampage games as part of a larger sports advertising package. Since “the ink is hardly dry on the contract,” he has not made any absolute decisions. “Let’s just say it’s something we’re strongly considering,” he said.

Sack is less concerned with advertising sales and more concerned with offering a consistent product to Rampage fans. He said that the team decided to leave its former home on Citadel Broadcasting’s “The Ball” 1340 AM WBBL mainly because their games were continually bumped for other sports broadcasts. Sack said that his company maintains a friendly relationship with Citadel, but that WBBL was just too crowded with other properties (such as the Pistons, the Red Wings, MichiganStateUniversity and other college sports coverage). The pre-emptions were simply too frequent.

On The Fox, the Rampage will only have to step aside when there is a conflict with NASCAR racing. Essick said that a provision in the contract allows for the games to be moved to WTKG, Clear Channel’s AM talk radio station.

With the contract in place, Sack and the Rampage leadership are gearing up for the new season. They hope to re-sign some of their 14 free agents. They will host a scouting tryout event later this fall. Although he would not promise a .500-plus winning percentage, Sack did say that he guarantees a marked improvement in the competitiveness of the team in every game.

That would be a good thing for the Rampage and for Clear Channel.

In the last AFL season, the 2-14 Columbus (Ohio) Destroyers were the only team with a worse record than the Rampage. If things in Columbus are any indication of how this new broadcast partnership might go in Grand Rapids, it doesn’t looking too promising for The Fox.

Broadcasts of the Destroyers’ games are handled by 107.1 FM WAZU. Mitchell Bowles, sales manager for Infinity Broadcasting Columbus, kindly refers to the ratings-challenged station as “entry-level” (read: cheap advertising slots). He said that coverage of the Destroyers’ games has not provided the station with an audience boost. Despite his sales staff’s efforts and the affordable rates, getting clients to advertise during arena football games has been difficult.

“To be honest,” Bowles said, “we don’t do a really good job selling it.”   

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