Exploring the popularity of sport on the radio

Sports broadcasting is thought to date back to in the early 20th century, but wasn’t so live as it is today. In its experimental form, it was merely an announcer receiving telegraphs containing updates on sports events and announcing them out aloud.

The first voice broadcast is believed to have taken place from Pittsburgh, in 1921, when station KDKA broadcast a live radio announcement of a ten-round boxing match. Later that year, Pittsburgh was also the setting for a radio broadcast. As the Pittsburgh Pirates went up against the Philadelphia Phillies on the diamond, a station had attended the scene to report developments from Forbes Field. Next to receive the radio broadcast treatment was the turn of college football and a matchup between West Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh.

From there, radio broadcasting of sports became more popular. Soon, every team would have live broadcasts, calling games over the radio.

Why is sport on the radio still so popular?

Sports fans have always been keen to follow every kick, pitch and putt of sporting events. If you visit a sportsbook, their in-play betting will track every stage of the event and the beauty of this is you can do it while you’re on the move. The radio is similar, fans can be driving or busy with other tasks, while also following every second of the game without being glued to the sofa.

So, how popular is it?

Sports radio can always count on someone tuning into it, whether the listener is in the UK or in the US. According to consumer and marketing data firm Statista, which published research in 2019, 15.07% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 informed researchers that they’d listened to sports programs on the radio in the past month.

Statista also reports that the leading sports talk radio station in the US by rating was KFXN in Minneapolis, which operated at the front of the pack with a rating of 5. How does the rating work? It means that five per cent of the people who were listening to sports talk radio listened to KFXN Minneapolis for at least five minutes during each 15 minute period. KDKA-FM Pittsburgh was also able to draw in and hold on to listeners, achieving a rating of 4.4.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the national sports radio stations BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra reached more than 5,000,000 listeners per week in the first quarter of 2020.

It has been noted that listeners in the UK have been slower to switch to online and app-based consumption of radio and that radio is popular during driving commutes. In 2018, listeners in the UK were still loving AM/FM radio more than other forms of radio consumption.

The most popular sports to listen to

A sports fan doesn’t have to tune in directly to the radio to follow their favorite sports, however. The internet makes it possible to keep up with everything going on in the world of sport through podcasts, with some stations offering podcast versions of their shows so that fans can catch up with anything they’ve missed.

So which sports are the most popular?

It all depends on the market.

Research from YouGov on sports fans listening to podcasts, including radio shows, reveals some stats that may surprise you. In the US, whereas you might have thought (American) football fans wouldn’t be able to get enough podcasts, the most avid listeners of podcasts turn out to basketball fans. Thirty-two percent state that they listened to a podcast at least once a week. Then came the baseball fans at 28%, the ice hockey fans at 27% and (American) football fans at 26%. These stats inform us that least a quarter of fans of the major sports in the US make time to tune into a podcast, radio or otherwise.

Respondents in the UK also threw up a few potential surprises when it came to fans of the major sports and their relationship with podcasts. Perhaps you’ve already arrived at the conclusion that soccer fans are going to be the most ardent listeners of podcasts.

Well, it turns out you’d be wrong, if you have. In fact, tennis fans topped the list at 23% having listened to a podcast at least once during the week. Second were the soccer fans at 21%, followed by a tie between the cycling fans and the rugby union ones, both at 22%.

France was a similar story, but with tennis (23%) and soccer (24%) switching places while cycling and rugby union also tied at 22%. Germany was interesting, however. Athletics fans came out on top (22%), with soccer following (18%) and then ski jumping (17%) and biathlon (15%).

Sports fans still enjoy traditional radio and can follow many events as they happen because there will often be a broadcaster on the scene to report on the action. Radio has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the early twentieth century, and now sports fans can keep up with events and news and views on apps or online as well as by listening to AM/FM radio. Whether an event is made available via live broadcast or in the form of a podcast episode of the radio show, there will always be someone listening.

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