Issues? You know I always have issues.
Question No. 1: Pun intended, but what’s The Score on Northern Illinois University intercollegiate athletics not renewing the WSCR-AM radio contract only four months after an unprecedented Orange Bowl appearance?
This is not a good omen for the Boise State of DeKalb County.
If you hadn’t heard, the University of Illinois and WSCR-AM announced that Illini football and men’s basketball will be carried exclusively on The Score starting in 2014-15. For the Huskies, it’s bye-bye 50,000-watt AM signal, and bye-bye saturation exposure in 38 states and parts of Canada, not to mention Chicago and the Midwest.
However you rationalize this latest news, it’s not good for the best and most productive football program in the state for the past decade (82 wins, seven bowl berths, two Mid-American Conference titles).
After four-plus decades of talking about being big-time, NIU football finally can market BCS victories, a Top 25 national ranking, NFL talent, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, plus state-of-the-art on-campus athletics facilities.
Question No. 2: How do you market the Huskies current-era with diminished media platforms?
To wit: Column inches in the Chicago Tribune? Down (one story on spring practice). The weekly TV coaches show produced by NIU Media Services – a show that dated to the Bill Mallory era? Kaput. Mutliple football broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet Chicago? Not anymore. Now WCSR-AM? The end. Building on the Orange Bowl? Externally, our Huskies seem to be stuck in reverse.
Being on The Score put the Huskies in the radio big leagues, toe-to-toe with in-state Big Ten Conference rivals Illinois and Northwestern. The potential numbers that WSCR could deliver were perfect for a state school begging to tell its many good stories in a pro sports-dominated market. According to my research, there are 13 50,000-watt AM sports format stations in the country, and NIU was on one of the biggest.
Problems? Sure, most of us bristled at some of the negative on-air comments by some of the on-air talent over the years. Poking fun is part of their shtick. The morning of the Illinois annoucement last week, the WSCR-AM staffers were ripping coach Tim Beckman and making up facetious questions. “Hey coach, what assistant did you fire this week?” or “Why did (athletics director) Mike Thomas hire the wrong guy from Toledo?” Give someone a microphone, everybody’s a comedian.
Then there were the early fall Saturday (when NIU football actually plays on Saturday) pre-emptions with the White Sox or their pregame or postgame shows. Admit it, few of us got up at 5, 6, or 7 a.m. on Saturday to listen to the 30-minute “NIU Weekly” radio show on WSCR-AM either. Real primetime, eh?
No situation is perfect. The positives outweighed the negatives. In fact, I’d rather pay The Score $250,000 or $300,000 than Ricardo Patton.
What hurts most is that former NIU AD Jim Phillips had positioned NIU football in the nation’s No. 3 market with the original four-year radio deal in 2005-06, maybe one of the most significant achievements during his tenure. A superb team coalition-builder, Phillips probably could get President Barack Obama and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un together in the same room. Sometimes you need that type of leadership.
Basically, the success of the first radio contract hinged on sponsorships. Phillips pooled many university resources to that end. Two of the largest radio network advertisers were the NIU Foundation and the NIU Alumni Association. With the exposure on WSCR and other regional affiliates, university recruitment and alumni relations prospered in our primary market. It was a win-win-win for the entire university, not just athletics.
But something happened to that campus relationship. Both the NIU Foundation and NIU Alumni Association no longer were on The Score during parts of 2012-13. What happened? Or was no one listening anyway?
Maybe a 50,000-watt AM radio jock outlet isn’t the answer for NIU. Anyone who went to Soldier Field last September saw that NIU fans were outnumbered 4 to 1 by Iowa fans.
The locals increased their Huskie Stadium winning streak to 21 in a row last season, yet averaged only 15,670 spectators a game – including a dismal 18,374 fans, albeit for a sub-par Big 12 Conference team. For an Orange Bowl squad and two-time MAC champion, this was a far cry from the DeKalb sellouts during 2002-04.
I’m sure NIU acting AD Christian Spears and the IMG group (“...that helps clients maximize (their) enormous potential...” according to its website) will be scrambling for Chicago radio stations – maybe the “usual suspects” in WIND-AM and WYLL-AM where Huskies broadcasts have appeared before – for the 2014 football season. Who knows? The radio landscape changes almost daily.
Finding additional stations that ring the Chicago perimeter might be difficult, too. Several Huskie Radio Network affiliates and local outlets got some ruffled feathers when “big boy” WSCR-AM arrived – including DeKalb’s WLBK-AM, which enters its 25th year as the NIU flagship station this season. Some of those relationships must be repaired. Local and long-time partnerships are vital.
In 2003, when The Score carried NIU’s historic 19-16 triumph over No. 21 Alabama, coach Joe Novak and all of us were inundated with many congratulatory emails and phone calls. One came from my Central Michigan SID counterpart Fred Stabley Jr.
“Mike, congratulations on the tremendous win over Alabama,” Stabley said. “Super win for your program, your alma mater, and the MAC. I listened to the entire game on the radio all the way back from Muncie. The signal came in great. Do you guys have a 50,000-watt radio station?”
Not any more.
• Mike Korcek is a former NIU sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.