Jeff Jacobs: It’s an easy call: Keep D’Ambrosio as the voice of UConn
College presidents, athletic directors, coaches — they love to call sports the front porch to their universities.
If we are to stretch the metaphor to the ‘knock, knock, knock’ on the front door of that porch, isn’t it true the principal broadcaster, the voice of the school, is the one who answers that knock?
The broadcaster who sits behind the microphone for game after glorious game is often as well-known and beloved as any of the coaches and athletes. And because a broadcaster like Joe D’Ambrosio often endures for decades, his voice becomes the most familiar, embracing voice of a university.
IMG announced Friday that it had struck a 10-year, multimillion-dollar deal with iHeartMedia and 97.9 ESPN to broadcast UConn football, basketball and hockey games as the new broadcast home of the Huskies. The news arrived hours after WTIC AM announced, after 26 years, it was out following the basketball season.
When SNY was named to replace CPTV as the TV carrier for UConn women’s games in 2012 there was much consternation among local romantics. It turned out to be a terrific decision.
For decades I have gone directly to AM 1080 for UConn. So many of us have. The two have served each other well through 15 combined national championships with men’s and women’s basketball. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve ridden shotgun with Joe D in my car, how many times I turned down the sound on my television to listen to him. Good grief, you listen to Bill Walton or some of the others long enough and you want to put a screwdriver in your ear.
“I have the highest respect for UConn athletic director David Benedict and his goals for the university,” said Phil Zachary, senior VP/Hartford market manager for Entercom, which owns WTIC. “However, I couldn’t justify what they were seeking when compared to more successful partnerships Entercom enjoys with elite Power 5 institutions.”
Ouch. That stung.
Benedict did not return the jab.
“It was a very difficult decision,” he said. “WTIC has been a great partner.”
The truth is there have been several harder punches absorbed by UConn in recent times. The Big East? Gone. The Big East payouts? Dried up. The American? Oh boy, so much work to be done. Football? Don’t ask. Basketball? “Fire Ollie!” is the most popular refrain.
These are not easy times in Storrs.
As much as WTIC will be missed, there are some things to like about the move. Time will tell us how smart a business deal it is. And that’s why I ask, with matters so much in flux and the fan base so restless, why would a school make it any harder on itself by dumping its voice? The familiar voice that, winter night after winter night, has called games everywhere from Seattle to Storrs for years and years?
Change for the sake of change? It certainly wouldn’t be incompetence or that Joe had lost his fastball.
For the record, no decisions have been made. But there’s a lot of talk.
“We’re going to sit down at the end of the season and have a long talk with David Benedict, 97.9 ESPN, as well as do a thorough review with our IMG College audio group,” Doug Fillis of IMG said.
That decision already should have been made.
Bob Joyce stays as the voice of women’s basketball.
It should be that easy.
While he said the existing model will be examined, Steve Honeycomb of iHeart said he already has told his people to look at three broadcast teams. Currently, D’Ambrosio and Wayne Norman do men’s basketball and football, while Joyce and Deb Fiske broadcast the women. It’s not a bad idea to incorporate another voice or two, but what is a bad idea is to wipe out the present talent.
Here’s a scoop: The broadcasters aren’t the problem right now. It’s the product.
IMG has been the rights holder for UConn since 2008, when it agreed to pay the school a whopping $80 million for a 10-year deal. WTIC was recently acquired by Entercom as part of a $2 billion merger with CBS Radio. Entercom holds the rights to broadcast more than 60 pro and college sports teams, including Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.
Obviously, they didn’t agree on what UConn, sans Power 5 cachet, is worth.
“I don’t think a lot of people can speak to it better than we can at IMG,” Fillis said. “We deal with the corporate community. We know the strength of the UConn brand. It’s tremendous.
“The offers we had on the table as we came to this decision were extremely strong. UConn doesn’t take a back seat to anybody when it comes to the audio and multimedia relationships.”
The move does make sense this way. WTIC is not a sports station. Long gone are the days of Arnold Dean. Gone, too, is the attempt to build an afternoon sports talk show with D’Ambrosio and Andy Gresh. The dynamics of Hartford radio, from Sirius XM to surrounding sports talks stations in Boston and New York, are challenging. FM, with a better sound, has been the avenue of 21st-century sports teams.
While it is foolish to say it couldn’t continue to work, the WTIC news lineup of Jim Vicevich, Rush Limbaugh, Todd Feinburg, Clark Howard and Sean Hannity is not exactly Golic and Wingo, Dan Le Batard, Stephen A. Smith and Rob Dibble. Dibble’s local show on 97.9 ESPN runs 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and obviously would provide UConn programming possibilities.
“That was one of the most significant opportunities we saw,” Benedict said of an all-sports station. The coaches’ shows will be on 97.9. How else iHeart builds momentum with UConn remains to be seen.
Honeycomb said there would be few scheduling conflicts and WPOP AM, owned by iHeart, would broadcast any overflow. This is an important point: IMG provides a Tunein App to follow games on mobile phones and there is satellite radio with Sirius/XM. The transition, Benedict conceded, will be challenging. Fillis said IMG will use its muscle to make it less so.
Benedict said UConn had lots of input, but ultimately, IMG made the call to leave WTIC. And iHeart is going to make the broadcasting call, which is as important as any part of this deal.
Honeycomb said iHeart, which will employ the announcers, wants to make sure UConn is happy with the choice. He said iHeart has 150 stations, does tons of play-by-play, has lots of assets, not to mention ESPN’s assets.
The biggest assets are already there. Dumping Joe D would be a mistake. At a most uncertain time, you need the familiar, reassuring voice.