The addition of Boston Celtics games strengthens 98.5 The Sports Hub’s grip on local sports broadcasts and amounts to a low-risk gamble on a team that appears unlikely to contend for a championship, radio industry observers said Friday.
The Sports Hub now broadcasts three of the market’s four major sports teams, joining just a few other stations around the country that have so many of their local franchises. The Sports Hub also broadcast the New England Patriots, the Boston Bruins, and New England Revolution games.
Celtics games had been heard on rival WEEI, or its sister station, WRKO, since the 2005-06 season, but the team and those stations’ parent, Entercom Communications, said last month that they could not agree on an extension.
WEEI carries Red Sox baseball games under a deal that runs through the 2016 season. Entercom declined to comment on the Celtics’ move to The Sports Hub.
CBS Radio, which owns The Sports Hub, declined to disclose terms of the Celtics contract, saying only that it is a “multiyear” deal.
But Scott Fybush, editor of the trade publication NorthEast Radio Watch, said it would be unusual for a broadcaster to commit to more than three years with a franchise that could struggle on the court. And because WEEI was already out of the bidding, he added, The Sports Hub likely got the Celtics broadcast rights for a relatively low price.
“I can’t imagine that there’s much money changing hands to make this happen,” Fybush said. “What it does for The Sports Hub is it gives them more programming to fill winter evenings. From the end of Red Sox season until spring training, it makes them the only play-by-play in town. And the potential upside is, depending on renewal clauses, you might be able to ride the team on its way back up.”
The Sports Hub has had upward momentum from the Bruins since it launched in 2009 and aired hockey games that year. At the time, the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics had each won at least one championship in the previous six years, and the Bruins were a distant fourth in local popularity. But after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 and making another finals appearance last season, the Bruins have surpassed the Celtics, according to a poll of New England sports fans published in August by Channel Media & Market Research of Sudbury.
The Celtics are rebuilding without coach Doc Rivers and three star players — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen — who helped win an NBA title in 2008.
On days when Bruins and Celtics games overlap, the basketball contests will be heard on WZLX, another CBS radio station — even if the Celtics have a marquee matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers or other rival, company spokeswoman Ro Dooley Webster said. Scheduling conflicts could push about a quarter of Celtics games off The Sports Hub airwaves.
Adding Celtics games could help The Sports Hub patch a perceived weakness in its talk programs, which consistently draw higher ratings than shows on WEEI but are not known for Celtics discussions, said Bruce Allen, who writes the Boston Sports Media Watch blog.
The Sports Hub “at times even seemed antagonistic towards the club, as if their Bruins were competing against then-WEEI’s Celtics,” he said. “Now they can embrace both clubs, add more Celtics- and NBA-related guests, and hopefully have a more balanced station.”