Leaving One of the Nation's Top Sports Radio Stations? Fine. Go "Home", Detroit Lions. You're Drunk.
The Detroit Lions signed a five-year contract with WJR-AM (760), which (1) grants the station, which held the exclusive rights from 1948 to 1988, the exclusive rights to broadcast Lions games on the radio starting with the 2016 season, (2) keeps commentators Dan Miller and Jim Brandstatter calling the Lions games, and (3) leaves its current nationally recognized flagship station of 12 years, 97.1 The Ticket, in the dust and in a fiery place. The franchise's public relations team is very insistent that this was purely a "business decision," but other sources say image control (i.e. censorship) is the motive. Of course, the Lions deny that censorship reasons fueled the switch and that the team's proposed negotiation terms included firing The Ticket afternoon radio host Mike Valenti to keep the broadcast rights.
Disclaimer: This is a zealous advocate's opinion piece on a professional football team's "business decision" to sign a fresh contract that I believe reveals quite a bit more about the incompetence of the franchise's office.
First, please allow me to get a few basic rhetorical questions off my chest.
- When you go 63-124 as a professional football team, how do you believe good things will be said about you? Honesty is the best policy when you need a thorough cleaning.
- When you do not give your flagship radio station access to the team's general manager for interviews, how do you believe you are giving society access to information in a way that comes anywhere close to being mildly objective? You aren't.
- When you try to control the media and what is said about you, how are you helping your fan base? You are insulting them by telling them they can't handle the truth.
Moreover, you are insulting them by telling them the media statements about your team are worth more of the business' money than the team athletes signed, the coaching staff invested in, and fans themselves who still want to see their team be successful despite the nonsense they endure.
If this is the first move by newly appointed president and longtime Ford family "member" Rod Wood, I bet the future sequence of events will parallel Dave Brandon's at the University of Michigan. I dub thee "The Dave Brandon Pill" - the pill tries to reform/rebuild/restructure an athletic entity with a presidential-esque businessman who has no work experience in sports, who was promoted from within, and who changes things that do not need to be changed while brushing aside the real problems. See Rod Wood's press statements about him not being "a football guy" and why he is (or isn't) the right man for the job in Detroit.
What is "consideration" in sports broadcasting contracts?
People buying people may be a pessimistic reality view, but it is not a new concept, especially in the sports industry. Some journalists are hired to state facts while some are hired to state opinions and criticisms. The media has a multitude of facets from which it can relay information to the public, and as complicated as the written media's legal relationship can be, broadcasting media has its own distinct complicated relationship.
When a team contracts with a radio station for exclusive broadcasting rights, what does each party get from that transaction? Each contract has an offer, an acceptance, and consideration. With respect to radio broadcast rights, different stations bid by presenting offers to the team. The team accepts one offer, but the consideration (i.e., what each side gives and receives, in simple terms) is what makes the contract enforceable. Obviously, the radio station pays the team for the right to be the only station who can broadcast that team's games on the radio, but what does the team receive in return?
On paper, the answer is money. The team gets A LOT of money. Between the lines, though, the team gets control or at least as much control as you can have without admitting you have control. Many sports radio stations offer bids, placing their price on the rare opportuniy to exclusively host a professional team. The team has options and can select from the pack what offer is the best fit and what best suits their needs. They know they are in a position of power, and they take full advantage of the power imbalance until the contract they select nears expiration, and the parties step up to the negotiating table. It is no surprise that the NFL is close with ESPN, who holds some exclusive rights from the NFL, and why Valenti on 97.1 spoke his mind about the Lions but only to an extent.
Arguably, the stations set their offer price fully knowing what they are getting themselves into so that the contract's power imbalance cannot be considered unconscionable. On the other hand, do we want sports entities to exert unreasonable control over image resembling a propagandist handle?
I do not think the Lions were lying when they say "business decisions" sparked the broadcast rights switch. "Business decisions" is vague and can include anything that the Lions front office believe could be in the best interests of the franchise. Therefore, public image concerns could validly be one of - if not, the main - business decision leading to dropping a Treat Dream's Cookie Monster 97.1 for a vanilla 760.
Truthfully, we probably take public commentary in the sports and entertainment realms for granted. In the 313, the image control issue got so extreme (rather, so silly) that 97.1 The Ticket had to choose between keeping either Mike Valenti, a colorful, controversial, love-him-or-hate-him personality, and a professional football team. Unreasonable image control is not a problem exclusive to Detroit. It is a broader problem that touches other franchises, other leagues, and other entertainment sectors. The Detroit Lions, in tandem with what Valenti has said, were dumb enough to get caught.
So, in conclusion, let's raise a glass this weekend:
Here's to the Roger Goodells of the world, who release information only when it puts them in a better light; to the athletic public relations teams, who are hired to make sure news is broken smoothly and in the best light possible for their employers; to the front offices of athletic administrations, who have fiduciary duties to manage the business and/or the athletic operations to the best of their ability and in the best interest of their respective organizations; and to the attorneys in the sports industry, who draft contracts and negotiate and zealously advocate for their clients and have fiduciary duties as well. May they all execute their tasks, their duties, and their goals ethically, displaying professionalism to keep producing a product that so many people are passionate about, knowing that the product itself has the flexibility to evolve to socially acceptable standards of conduct and that what happens behind the scenes should also live up to socially acceptable standards of conduct. Respect.