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At radio deal's end, Sox may be in play

WEEI's contract with the Red Sox expires at the end of this season -- and, with it, the right to broadcast Sox games.

As the Sox weigh their options for next year, they could move their games to FM, or even buy a station of their own. Sox executives say they are in renegotiations with WEEI, but that other possibilities also are on the table.

''We've been very fortunate to have had a great partnership with WEEI," said Mike Dee, the team's chief operating officer. ''I wouldn't preclude anything. We look at opportunities all the time." He declined to discuss details of the WEEI negotiations, but said, ''We're going to go into the process with open eyes and look to do something that's in the best interest of the Red Sox."

The end of the WEEI contract raises the specter of a bidding war for Sox radio rights. WEEI has the highest market share of any sports radio station in the country, according to market research firm Arbitron Inc. -- but it now faces the prospect that its flagship team could go elsewhere.

The station's program director, Jason Wolfe, said WEEI expects to reach agreement with the Sox, but declined to say how long it might take. ''We feel we're the best partner," he said. ''We have an outstanding relationship with the club. We're going to continue to talk."

If the Sox go with an FM radio partner, they could incorporate more crowd noise into broadcasts, and may be able to improve sound quality. The New England Patriots made the switch to an FM station, WBCN, 11 seasons ago and haven't looked back.

FM gives listeners ''the sound of impact, the voices, and the thuds," said a team spokesman, Stacey James. ''If you listen to games AM versus FM, it's night and day." Other Major League Baseball teams -- Atlanta, Kansas City, and Washington D.C. -- already have FM broadcast partners. In the NFL, more than a dozen teams, from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, broadcast games on FM.

The major sticking point between the Sox and any potential radio partner is likely to be rights fees. Typically, a radio partner would pay the Sox a fee for the right to broadcast their games, then sell advertising and make money off the difference. This year, with interest in the Sox at an all-time high, the team is likely to ask WEEI for a substantial increase in rights fees -- or take its business elsewhere.

''There's more money to be made for the Red Sox in the next contract than in the current contract," said Stephen A. Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in sports management.

Dee said the team prefers to negotiate a new contract with WEEI. ''We like regularity," he said.

It is rare for baseball teams to own radio stations, but the idea has precedent: Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Cubs, also owns radio station WGN. Reports published in California suggest the Angels will buy a Spanish-language radio station.

''It would be a natural move for the Red Sox to look into buying a radio station or a partnership" with an existing radio station, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton who studies sports.

Already, the Red Sox have plenty of experience in another medium: television. The Sox's owners (including The New York Times Co., owner of the Globe, which has a 17 percent stake) also control NESN, which telecasts Sox games. NESN generates tens of millions in profits annually -- conveniently exempt from Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing rules. (Team financial statements are private, so NESN's exact profits are unavailable.) A radio station, presumably, would serve much the same purpose for the Sox.

A radio station also would give the Red Sox control over far more of their own content, rather than relying on third parties such as WEEI to reach the public. Across sports leagues, it has become increasingly common for teams to bypass mainstream media and talk directly to fans. The Patriots recently signed a deal with Comcast to provide on-demand programming to its subscribers -- much of which is produced by the Kraft family, the Patriots' owners. It includes press conferences, daily news shows, and interviews with players.

Despite the added control and financial benefits for the Red Sox of owning a radio station, it would have drawbacks as well: It would be expensive, and the Sox would have to figure out what to put on the air during the hours, weeks, and months when the team is not playing. And with the increasing popularity of satellite radio, the business fundamentals are changing.

If the Sox decide against owning a radio station, it may make sense for them to partner with an existing one. In such an arrangement, the team could lease airtime from the station, then sell its own advertising. In a more expansive partnership arrangement, the Sox could take responsibility for much of the programming and fill the time with sports shows, creating a direct competitor to WEEI.

The Sox ownership could sign a deal with another company to sell the ads on the team's behalf, or sell the ads through a non-baseball subsidiary. (One clue as to what they may do: A Sox sister company, Fenway Sports Group, owned by the same group of partners, struck a deal with Boston College last year to market its sports teams. In that deal, it gave control over the broadcast portion of the sales and marketing to an outside company, ISP Sports).

WEEI parent's, Entercom Communications Corp., owns several other AM and FM stations in New England, including WEEI-FM in Providence, WRKO-AM, WAAF-FM, and WMKK-FM, so at least in theory, the Sox contract could move to one of them. Greater Media Inc., which owns Magic 106.7, WTKK, and WBOS, also would be a logical bidder. It has entered exclusive talks to buy classical music station WCRB-FM, which could be converted to a sports format.

Over the past several years, WEEI has made much of its connection with the Sox. Red Sox chief executive Larry Lucchino has made regular appearances, as have pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.

''The Red Sox are very important to WEEI," said Greyser, the Harvard professor. ''If they didn't have the Red Sox as their core programming from the equivalent of late February through early October, and maybe beyond, they'd have to do a lot to substitute for that. It's of very high value to them to try to get a renewal."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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