End of an Era: Sportsnet Cancels Blue Jays Radio

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail


The legacy left behind by Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth will be on pause in 2021, and its future is not looking very bright.


On Friday Sportsnet announced that the Blue Jays would not have a dedicated radio broadcast for the coming season, relying instead on the TV audio feed. This will be provided by Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez from Toronto, who will be calling the games off of monitors. The Jays recently announced plans to play their initial home series from Dunedin, as the border between Canada and the U.S. remains closed.


According to Sportsnet’s press release, the move is pandemic related:


“In an effort to minimize travel and closely adhere to team, league, and government protocols related to the pandemic, Sportsnet will be streamlining production for the 2021 season by simulcasting TV broadcasts on Sportsnet 590 The FAN and across the Sportsnet Radio Network. Blue Jays fans can now enjoy the legendary voices of Buck Martinez, Dan Shulman, and Pat Tabler on both TV and radio. Ben Wagner remains part of the Blue Jays on Sportsnet broadcast team, joining Jamie Campbell, Joe Siddall, Hazel Mae, and Arash Madani in covering all the bases throughout the season.”


As indicated, this means recently hired Ben Wagner lacks a platform for 2021, and will be merged into an already stuffed roster of extra voices on the TV broadcasts. With the addition of Shulman in 2018, Pat Tabler was relegated to third man status in 2020. Since the start of the pandemic he has been joining the broadcast for additional commentary remotely from Ohio. With respect to sideline reporting, 2020 saw both Mae and Madani contributing from the studio. The desk show features viewer-favourite Campbell, and recent radio convert Siddall. It is unclear where Wagner will fit in.

The decision to simulcast will yield significant salary savings, as they will not replace the departed Mike Wilner, and will not need to employ the complement of technical crew required to produce live radio. In addition to these savings, the network will not be sending its own camera crew to Florida.


Sportsnet has not indicated this move is permanent. It is unclear at this time whether FAN590 intends to host a Blue Jays pre and post game show in 2021.


Several MLB announcers voiced their opposition to Rogers’ decision:




As did several local media members:




The local writers also covered the story:


Gregor Chisholm, Star: “The decision to go with one broadcast this season is an obvious move to cut costs. Sportsnet claimed the change was made “in an effort to minimize travel and closely adhere to team, league, and government protocols related to the pandemic.” What isn’t said in the release is that similar rules were in place last year and yet both television and radio broadcasts continued as in-studio products.”


Rob Longley, Sun, featuring quotes from Jerry Howarth: “The broadcasting world is changing almost daily in this country — much of it not for the better — but those passionate about the Jays are having trouble digesting the Sportsnet lunacy. The rebuilding ball team that reported to spring training amid so much excitement and begins its exhibition schedule on Sunday in Tampa, has rarely seemed in such a buoyant place for owner Rogers Communications. That same owner’s broadcast division has decided to wipe out radio broadcasts, replacing them with a simulcast of the TV call from Sportsnet’s Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez.”


Sean Fitz-Gerlad, Athletic: “With no program director in place at The Fan, it would appear the decision is being made without the input from a senior voice on the content side of the station. It is not clear if the company’s play-by-play voices will be asked to adjust their calls to be more descriptive for the audience that is listening, rather than watching.”

The Globe & Mail chose not to cover this story.


This decision is about money not public health. If they wanted Wagner to broadcast the games, he would be. He already lives in Florida. So let’s talk about money. Rogers pays both George Springer and Ben Wagner out of the same budget. Rogers pays for the plane the Jays travel on and the hotel rooms they stay in. There are clear economies of scale to be had if a few extra Sportsnet radio bodies were traveling with the team.


The larger cost picture is the important one. By doing everything from a studio in Toronto the network can cut a significant number of jobs on both the radio and TV side. These jobs could be replaced in 2022, with presumably cheaper labour as the more experienced folks look for other work in 2021. Or, these jobs may not be replaced at all. While Bell made headlines in February for its massive restructuring plans, Rogers has been quietly eliminating jobs in their media wing as well.


The major difference here is that live sports has always been the crown jewel of content, justifying lavish spending on production costs, with these costs being passed on to both advertisers and consumers. The signals here are twofold: 1) radio is not very important, and 2) post-pandemic a lot of technical jobs may become gig work rather than a full-time career.


The first point has been made abundantly clear by both Bell and Rogers. AM radio is a horse and buggy industry, outside of news and traffic updates. There simply isn’t enough of an audience to draw the kind of national advertising dollars needed to sustain significant investment. There will never be another Bob McCown. So, while Overdrive enjoys the spotlight now, there is a ceiling to how much money TSN can make off the show going forward. If they are going to avoid the fate of PTS, which was nickel and dimed to death over the last decade, Bell needs to figure out a way to monetize the show beyond radio.


The second point has been the subject of lots of discussion around here over the last several years. Since the cutting began at Rogers in 2016 we have been talking about how expensive it is to produce live sports. At the same time, audiences are becoming more fragmented. The pandemic has forced both innovation and recalibration of the way live sports are brought to air. The net outcome is that networks are learning to do more (or the same) with less human power. Sportsnet executed a similar reduction with their Tim & Sid TV show in 2019. This is a topic for larger conversation another time. Point being, many production jobs won’t return.


As so many have pointed out, this is a Sportsnet decision not a Blue Jays decision. These two Rogers entities have almost always been on the same page, perhaps to a fault when it comes to Sportsnet’s journalism operation. With Mark Shapiro publicly distancing the Jays from the lack of spring training coverage, there is a public admission that these cost cutting measures don’t serve the best interests of the team. This is a change of course for the Jays who have been able to rely on Sportsnet as an unqualified ally.

More on this story to come.


thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)


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