The Zags' west-side story: It's a head-scratcher

This blog is coming to you courtesy of the mysteries of computer technology, 2019. Specifically, you’re reading it now after (a) I lost some computerized notes awhile back, and (b) I found them the other day. I’m not especially tech-savvy – OK, not at all – but for the life of me, not only do I not know how I lost the notes, I don’t know how I found them.

But there they were, background on a subject I’ve always seen as fascinating – Gonzaga’s struggles penetrating the consciousness of the west side of the state of Washington. Despite the 21 straight NCAA tournaments. Despite the 11 straight seasons of winning in the NCAA tournament. Despite five straight Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights among those five.

Here’s how I perceive it: Against all odds, Gonzaga hoops occupies a bigger place in the psyche of fans two or three time zones away than it does in the world of the fan-but-not-a-GU-fan west of the Cascades. Or maybe what I’m feeling is the notion that a basketball follower in Indiana or Pennsylvania probably envisions Zag hoops as being a bigger deal along the I-5 corridor than I sense that it is.

Recruiting remains a challenge in that sector, and there's precious little discussion of Gonzaga hoops on the airwaves, whether it's good times or bad at Washington.

I wrote about this in some detail in “Glory Hounds.” But what revived the subject last season was the what’s-wrong-with-this-picture juxtaposition of two east-side Division I hoops programs in the Seattle radio market.

One was Washington State, which was slogging through an 11-21 season, and which, for the love of Isaac Fontaine, hasn’t won a game in the Pac-12 conference tournament in a decade.

And the Cougars were broadcast on 710 ESPN in Seattle, a 50,000-watt station that, even before its transformation to all-sports radio a decade ago, was one of the region’s heavyweights.

Because of WSU’s tie-in with 710 ESPN, you were able last winter to pick up the Cougars’ game at Stanford, in which they trailed 52-15 at the half to a club that finished with a losing record.

Then there are the Zags, who are on KIXI in Seattle, a retro-music station that cuts power at night. In fact, it cuts power so much that, despite the fact I live about 20 miles from Seattle, the signal fades and weaves and is sometimes unintelligible. If you want to pick up a coach’s post-game radio comments, it can be difficult.

Let’s acknowledge a couple of things: First, there are a lot more WSU alums in the Seattle area than Gonzaga alums. Second, it’s questionable how many fans of either ilk follow their team on a radio station. Still, there are times when you’re in your car, say, and that’s the stop-gap.

As it happens, there’s a sub-plot.

In essence, when you hear the Cougars on 710 ESPN, it’s an infomercial. Because WSU is footing the bill.

Let’s go back in time.

Not so long ago, like 20-25 years ago, the arrangement for carriage of colleges’ athletic teams went like this: Stations bid for the rights, which went to the highest bidder, and then the station’s salesmen sold the advertising to recoup the investment. In Seattle, Washington football always commanded a jaw-dropping number, sometimes tops in the nation, owing to the excellence of the program and the fact that the UW held a major place in the region’s sporting consciousness despite all the pro competition.

Then things changed, as multimedia companies like IMG College and Learfield set up shop. They represented schools and negotiated with stations for a broader-based contract that includes things like stadium and arena advertising. (Those two entities merged several months ago.)

A WSU spokesman forwarded details of the school’s arrangement with 710 ESPN. The Cougars are in the middle of a three-year contract that requires them to pay $119,000 annually to have 710 broadcast all football and men’s basketball games. Some $40,000 of that commitment annually is picked up by IMG.

All I can envision is a station executive at 710 gritting his teeth for two hours as the WSU basketball team is losing to Montana State. Or as the Ernie Kent coach’s show is airing (that’s part of the deal, too.)

One of those execs is Dave Pridemore, and I asked him if it would be a non-starter to split football and basketball (opening a spot, ostensibly, for GU basketball) since WSU football prospers and basketball struggles mightily. Via e-mail, he responded: “It’s a fair question, but if ‘struggling’ programs/teams/clubs were a criteria for our play-by-play partnerships, since 2000 and up until now we would have no Seahawks, no Mariners, no Huskies nor Cougars on our broadcast platforms . . . “

OK, but the more cogent reason is that in such industry deals, it would be highly unusual to make football and basketball separate entities. As Pridemore acknowledges, “IMG understandably won’t separate them and we’ve never asked . . . so no room on 710 for GU.”

Mark Livingston, general manager for Gonzaga’s Sports Properties – the Learfield/IMG arm of the department – confirms that’s industry custom, saying, “When I talk to my peers at IMG, I haven’t talked to anybody that’s broken it up.”

Indeed, another radio exec says in some negotiations, Learfield/IMG will even attempt to bundle other programs, like women's basketball and baseball, with football and basketball.

Any sort of apples-to-apples comparison is impossible here, because GU, as a private institution, doesn’t release its contract terms. And conceptually, the obvious driver for 710 ESPN is football, which Gonzaga doesn’t offer. As Livingston puts it, “If I’m at WSU and I’m writing them a six-figure check (annually), you’re taking both.”

Is $119,000 annually a substantial check in the realm of such deals? “Yeah, it is,” replied Livingston.

So, for Gonzaga, the question is: How badly do you want your games aired on a major player in the market? “Currently,” Livingston says, “we are not writing a check to be on the airwaves. Some schools do and some don’t.”

I’m making the assumption that’s simple cost/benefit math – that the Zags aren’t convinced there’s enough to be gained from buying the exposure.

That may merely reflect the difficulty in penetrating a large market. Says Livingston, “It is tough in the major markets. These markets are really tough to crack.”

He says some schools in those markets have to satisfy themselves with getting basketball games streamed because the demand is low. “You’re not going to bump Jim Rome or Rush Limbaugh or somebody like that to get on the air (in a major market),” Livingston says.

I ran the phenomenon by Rich Moore, the station manager at KJR in Seattle, another all-sports station that might seem a likely candidate to carry GU.

Said Moore, “I mean, I would be interested . . . it’s hard with college basketball. The games are so inconsistent time-wise, and late at night. They’re all on TV for the most part now. The value is not what you think it might be . . . I don’t know how big the audience is on this side of the mountains for Gonzaga basketball.”

There’s also the fact that a lot of GU basketball games are at 6 p.m., which is a nice TV slot, but an invasion of the important afternoon-drive radio window.

“We would probably lose money if we carried the games,” Moore says.

Meanwhile, Mike Roth, the athletic director, takes a generally beatific view of the west-side radio situation. He remembers, pre-streak, meeting with individual radio stations to plead Gonzaga’s case, trying to wring every inch of turf possible.

Now, he says, “We really like the fact people can get the games throughout the state of Washington in your car.” (And, to be precise, apps allow you to avoid the flighty nature of night-time radio signals.)

Roth points to other developments that have raised Gonzaga’s profile on the west side, like the donation by late philanthropist Myrtle Woldson of some prime downtown-Seattle real estate, being leased to provide a steady source of income for the school.

Of course, there’s the Battle in Seattle, which played to generally popular houses at KeyArena – but which is on hold at least until the redo of the facility is complete in a couple of years.

“Compared to where we were in ’95, ’96, ’97, to where we are today, it’s light-years different,” Roth says. “I’m not sure how many people on the west side knew we existed. Now every game we play is on TV. Now, with the ability of streaming, people can watch us all over the place.”

Let’s not overstate the point here. If you asked 100 Gonzaga fans, 100 would probably tell you the ability to see their team on TV far outstrips any concerns about radio. And that’s fully understandable.

It may even be that west-side radio is so distant on the priority list of GU marketers, it’s not even back-burner. Perhaps, in the sweep of media considerations, it's just an accessory, like your belt or pocket square.

So be it. But last winter, the Zags were a team capable of winning a national championship. That, and the media market on the far side of their own state, remain frontiers yet to conquer.