- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

Washington, of course, remains without a major league baseball team, and the quest for a club is now in its fourth decade. But this spring that doesn't represent the total of the area's baseball drought.
The Bowie Baysox, Potomac Cannons and Frederick Keys the area's three minor league clubs have pulled the plug on local radio broadcasts of their games, signaling a growing disconnection between the suburban locations now favored for such franchises and the broadcast fees required to get on the air.
Unlike most major league clubs, minor league teams typically pay local AM stations to get their games on the air. Annual fees often range in the tens of thousands of dollars, a large sum of money for most minor league teams. And the radio signals involved are often weak, pointed in only one direction at night and easily disrupted by weather or geography.
In a spirit of significant belt-tightening being seen across all minor league sports, Cannons owner Art Silber and Comcast-Spectacor, owner of the Keys and Baysox, reached the same conclusion for 2002: there was too little value there for the money, especially when also considering the soft advertising market. The Baysox have parted ways with WNAV (AM-1430) in Annapolis, the Keys with WTHU (AM-1450) in Thurmont, Md., and the Cannons with WKCW (AM-1420) in Warrenton, Va.
The Cannons are now transmitting audio accounts of their games solely through their Web site, www.potomaccannons.com, while the Keys and Baysox will only reach the airwaves a combined 14 times this year through the Comcast-owned CN8 TV station.
"It was simply a matter of economics," said Frank Miceli, director of minor league operations for Comcast-Spectacor, which also owns the Delmarva Shorebirds, Philadelphia Flyers, Philadelphia 76ers, First Union Center and Comcast SportsNet. "When we closed on purchase of the clubs [in January 2001], we started taking a long look at operations across the board. The radio element seemed like something a little out of whack. In the case of the Baysox, in particular, you had a radio signal that couldn't even be clearly heard in the parking lot [of Prince Georges Stadium].
"We enjoyed our relationship with WNAV, but if we can't really reach all our fan base, our core markets, it doesn't represent the best use of our dollars," he said.
WNAV has since contracted to air Baltimore Orioles games, moving from a situation in which rights fees were paid to them to one where they must pay the Orioles. Station executives plan on recouping the added expense through increased advertising. But the loss of the Baysox is still felt.
"We're a hometown station here and really thought having the local baseball team was of value," WNAV general manager Steve Hopp said. "But [Comcast-Spectacor] made a budget decision, and we're both trying to move forward."
This all begs the question why the clubs simply didn't contract with other stations to get their games on the air. After all, the clubs still enjoy significant followings for their level of play. Of 176 teams within Minor League Baseball, the Baysox ranked 37th in 2001 attendance, the Keys 42nd, and the Cannons 83rd.
In fact, each club conducted an exhaustive search for new and more powerful outlets. But what was found was an unintended consequence of minor league baseball's extensive growth of the past two decades.
Since the early 1980s, dozens of clubs including the Baysox, Keys and Cannons have helped turn minor league baseball from largely a small-town enterprise into one that could thrive in small cities and suburbs of major hubs like Washington. Fueling that was an effective sales pitch that elevated the game from simply one for hardball purists to clean, affordable family entertainment.
But the radio stations in these heavier-populated areas are now under the increasing control of national operators like Clear Channel, and the costs to get on the air are quickly rising. And as areas like Washington grow more diversified and programming segments more, committing to air more than 130 minor league games a season is a tougher sell for many stations.
"We really looked to find a new home for our games we were willing to pay more money," Cannons general manager Max Baker said. "But we simply couldn't find a station that made sense to us and could commit to our schedule."
Meanwhile, the Cannons are trying to forge new ground on the Internet. The team is working with Billings, Mont.-based Zee Creative to help produce the Webcasts and continues to send announcer Scott Lauer on the road to cover the games. The audience so far is small, largely diehards and families of players, and ad time for each game isn't close to being sold out. But the team believes it possibly has struck on something valuable for the future of minor league baseball.
"We've just started this, and it's definitely a work in progress," Baker said. "But we're encouraged so far. The families who scattered all over obviously love it, and it's something we have a little more control over."

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