Celtics Get New Radio Deal

June 24, 2005
The Celtics, who have always prided themselves on tradition, went back to the future in making WRKO (680-AM) their new radio home in a multiyear deal that was announced yesterday. WRKO had broadcast the team's games in two previous deals during the past 40 years: 1981-87 and 1995-96.

Rich Gotham, the Celtics' executive vice president of sales and corporate development, had decisions to make once the club's previous partner, WWZN (1510-AM), opted out of the final season of a five-year deal that would have gone through the coming season.

    The Celtics could have:

1) Brought the broadcast in-house. Possible, "but we're not in the radio business," Gotham decided. That probably was a wise decision because the team could buy air time, but not necessarily the type of cross-promotional opportunities it needs and wants.

2) Stayed the course with WWZN in a new deal, with a greatly reduced rights fee. "The Zone [1510] was a great partner," said Gotham. The station was that in every way but one: It couldn't deliver a big enough audience.

3) Find a new partner: In many ways, the riskiest move, but also one with greater "upside."

In the end, they took Door No. 3 and aligned themselves with Entercom, the parent of all-sports powerhouse WEEI (850-AM) and sister station WRKO. Neither side would say whether a rights fee was involved in addition to the revenue-sharing agreement.

Why not put the games on WEEI? As one industry observer noted last winter: "They can't. WEEI's nighttime ratings with Ted Sarandis are much higher than the Celtics' ratings on 1510."

The risks in this deal are similar to the one Boston College football took in making WRKO its home for the coming season: Will the WEEI promotion be enough to condition listeners to remember to hit the WRKO button on their radios? And will the joint sales and marketing efforts between the team and station produce the desired sponsorship/marketing synergy?

Otherwise, the deal seems filled with positives:

WEEI's promotion immediately takes the team mainstream among casual sports fans, the ones the team hopes to capture. If all the WEEI listeners who hear the projected weekly segments with basketball boss Danny Ainge, coach Doc Rivers, and selected players tune into the games on TV partner FSNE, they would do double-digit ratings. That's the reach of WEEI and that's the "buzz" the team desperately wanted and WRKO hopes to get.

A viable New England radio network, possibly including WEEI-FM (103.7) in Providence and WVEI (1440-AM) in Worcester. That's the "increased reach" the team sought.

Ticket sales. "Winning brings fans, but so does being out there and being talked about," said Gotham. "Our job is the winning, WEEI's is the talking."

A chance for WRKO to possibly latch onto WEEI's success to get a larger market share.

Some additional factors in the deal:

Announcers: Both WRKO and the Celtics said the first choice was to talk with incumbents Sean Grande and Cedric Maxwell.

The Glenn Ordway factor. Ordway did sales and broadcasting with the team from 1982-95 on WRKO and the "old" WEEI, when it was at 590-AM. "He's been a huge Celtics fan all his life," said WEEI director of programming and operations Jason Wolfe. "I know he's excited at the prospect of being back, in some way to be determined, though I don't expect him to have a role in the actual broadcasts themselves."

Should Celtics and BC broadcasts conflict, the Celtics' game would take precedence on WRKO.

The deal effectively takes the Celtics out of the market as an "anchor property" for another sports station.

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