ESPN 1000 woos, wows Bears into multiyear radio partnership

In an age of streaming video, radio is still important in sports, particularly to the Bears.

“We don’t have regional television broadcasts like the other teams in town,” said Scott Hagel, the Bears’ senior vice president of marketing and communications. “That hometown call, that’s the only place you can get it. And so that continues to be a very important part of our plan.”

Now, ESPN 1000 is a part of that plan. The Good Karma Brands station will carry Bears games starting next season under a multiyear deal. Audacy-owned WBBM-AM (780) chose not to continue as the Bears’ flagship when its contract expires after this season for financial reasons.

“We’re happy with the work that Audacy’s team has done,” Hagel said. “But when the opportunity came to see what the potential was elsewhere, candidly, Good Karma just did a phenomenal job of showing enthusiasm for how to bring Bears football to life on ESPN 1000 and their other platforms. It excited us.

“They did a great job of not just necessarily selling us, but really showing us who they are and how they operated, and they gave us a great deal of comfort to make a move like this. It’s a big deal, and we did not take the decision lightly.”

The big question on fans’ minds is whether longtime voices Jeff Joniak and Tom Thayer will remain on the broadcast. The answer: That’s everyone’s intention.

“We’re interested in keeping the same play-by-play team, but we have to wait till the season ends to make any sort of announcement,” said Keith Williams, ESPN Chicago market manager and GKB senior vice president. “They’re under contract. I can’t comment further than that.”

Another concern for fans is ESPN 1000’s signal, which is weak in parts of the area. Williams pointed to the station’s HD signal at 100.3-HD2 and the ESPN Chicago app as alternatives. He said the station had no plans to add an FM channel like WBBM did with WCFS-FM (105.9).

Hagel said the Bears also were drawn to GKB for its distribution. After adding the White Sox for the 2021 season, the company grew the team’s network from eight affiliates in 2020 to a record 25 this year, extending coverage across the Midwest.

ESPN 1000 is now firmly back on the local-rights scene. Until the Sox came aboard, the station hadn’t carried a team from the four major professional leagues since 2016, when it had the Bulls.

“From our standpoint, having the Bears and the White Sox and ESPN, we’re a one-stop shop,” Williams said. “We just have to continue to entertain and inform our fans. It’s all about making sure our advertising partners are getting the results they need, too.

“Our full intent with these play-by-play partnerships with the Bears and White Sox, this is pretty much 12 months out of the year that you’ve got some kind of live game happening. It’s hard to find audiences that are engaged today as they are with live sports.”

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