WCCO says goodbye to Gophers sports

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2011 - 12:09 PM

The final pieces of the old WCCO sports empire crumbled when university football, basketball and hockey teams said goodbye to their longtime radio home.

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Ray Christensen was the longtime voice of Gophers sports on WCCO-AM.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune file

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WCCO's first season of broadcasting Golden Gophers football in 1943 included games against World War II training teams such as Camp Grant, Ill., and the Iowa Seahawks flight trainees. Williams Arena was almost new when the station's on-again, off-again relationship with the University of Minnesota's basketball team began in the early 1930s.

For decades, sports fans all over the Midwest tuned in to the 50,000-watt signal to hear the Twins, Vikings, North Stars and Gophers. "You just took it for granted -- everything was on WCCO," said Ray Christensen, who called Gophers football games for 50 seasons. "It was part of the everyday life of people across Minnesota."

But on Wednesday, the final pieces of the old WCCO sports empire crumbled when university football, basketball and hockey said goodbye to their longtime radio home. Minnesota football games will be broadcast on KFAN (and simulcast on KTLK-FM) for the next three years, while men's and women's basketball and men's hockey will move to KSTP, which calls itself 1500ESPN.

Those moves came after the Vikings were peeled away by KFAN almost a decade ago, the Twins bolted for KSTP in 2007, and the North Stars migrated to Dallas in 1993.

"As someone who remembers the golden years, I hate to see it happen," said Christensen, who retired to Rosemount a decade ago. "But I understand it. These days, it's become a matter of who can pay the most money."

Actually, that probably has always been true. It's just that the venerable CBS Radio affiliate faces a lot more competition for sports programming these days, especially with two AM stations devoted to nothing else.

Audience, promos and money

So when the university and its sports-rights syndicator, Learfield Sports, began shopping Gophers' broadcasts recently, reaching a younger audience than WCCO's older demographic was important, said Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi. Being heavily promoted at all hours of the day, across several different programs and stations, is significant. Expanding women's basketball coverage to 15 games and reducing the constant preempting of men's hockey games counted for a lot, he said.

Yes, the money mattered, too.

"No question, we feel like the value in these contracts is a significant factor," Maturi said, though he declined to disclose the terms of the three-year contracts; it's not clear whether the university will receive rights fees or buy the airtime and sell its own advertising, through Learfield. "But there are different ways of measuring value, from promotion to marketing to financial. We think this is a really good combination of it all."

WCCO's lone remaining sports property is the NHL's Minnesota Wild. "It's a legitimate win for the Fan and ESPN, but I don't know how it affects us," said WCCO talk-show host Chad Hartman. "We've had a number of changes in the past 18 months, and we're still trying to position ourselves in the market."

Football announcers up in air

For the Gophers' new partners, Wednesday's agreements were reason to celebrate. "We've always wanted the Gophers, but I wondered if we would ever be given a shot at them," said Mike Crusham, general manager of Clear Channel's seven Twin Cities stations. "This is a great day for [KFAN], and I think a great day for Gopher fans, too."

For WCCO, however, it was a subdued end to a sports epoch, much like the loss of the Twins four years ago. "I thought I understood the significance," Crusham said, "but it's really hit me over the last eight hours that it's far beyond what I realized."

The contract calls for Learfield to produce the broadcasts, including hiring the announcers. Dave Lee, who also hosts a WCCO show, will no longer do play-by-play for Gopher games -- "I've got a passions for the [university], so it'll be a hard goodbye," Lee said -- but analysts Dave Mona and Darrell Thompson have not been informed whether they will be retained. Mike Grimm is likely to remain behind the mike for men's basketball, as is Wally Shaver on hockey.

The stations will produce coaches' shows and pre- and postgame shows, and plan to devote considerably more air time to the university. For KSTP, the package of winter sports fits perfectly into the Twins' offseason, said general manager Dan Seeman.

And for Gophers fans, it means breaking decades-old habits.

Which is easier for some than others.

"I admit," said Christensen, the WCCO loyalist, "I may be more likely to just listen to the TV [announcers] instead."

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