Sometimes in radio, you can see a deal coming from miles away. And sometimes, a surprising deal emerges out of nowhere - like, say, today's announcement that ESPN Radio is entering into a long-term LMA of WRKS (98.7 New York) from Emmis.
On Monday, WRKS will flip from urban AC "Kiss 98.7" to the ESPN Radio programming now heard on WEPN (1050) - and the "Kiss" intellectual property will slide up the dial to erstwhile competitor WBLS (107.5), itself in the hands of new owners YMF.
The surprise deal ends years of rumors about ESPN seeking out a New York FM signal to replace 1050, which has long suffered from a directional pattern that misses out on listeners in much of northern New Jersey and central Long Island. ESPN had apparently negotiated with Emmis a few years ago for another of its signals, the 101.9 facility that eventually went to Merlin Media as WEMP, but in recent weeks the stronger rumors had ESPN talking to Family Stations about WFME (94.7 Newark NJ) or to YMF about WBLS.
So why Kiss instead? For ESPN, 98.7 provides the full-market class B signal that can compete much more effectively with CBS Radio's WFAN (660) than 94.7 ever could - and the deal with WBLS avoids the bad PR that would have come from a direct ESPN acquisition of 107.5.
A big FM signal alone isn't enough to take down a legacy AM operation in New York, as Merlin has demonstrated with its lagging ratings at WEMP against the continued success of CBS Radio's WCBS (880) and WINS (1010) - but ESPN isn't done yet. The next step in this story is expected to be play-by-play rights, and specifically the Yankees, whose current deal with WCBS expires at the end of this season. Even before the news broke this morning about the 98.7 piece of the deal, the New York tabloids were abuzz this week with talk of Yankees/ESPN negotiations. Will CBS be willing to open its pockets to keep the Yankees in house - perhaps over on WFAN? And will ESPN's FM move prompt CBS to make a similar flip for WFAN, perhaps on what's now "92.3 NOW"?
Meanwhile on the AM dial, 1050 will simulcast with 98.7 for a few months, but this fall the AM facility will flip to Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, giving that network its first full-time clearance in the New York market.
Much more on this story (including some of the questions it raises for Emmis' remaining New York operations and Family's attempt to sell WFME) in Monday's NERW....