ESPN Milwaukee 540 AM announced on Tuesday that it will be the radio broadcast partner for Marquette University High School football this season, introducing an exclusive station-team relationship believed to be unique in this market.
Good Karma Brands, the parent company of ESPN Milwaukee, said in a press release that it’s "excited to bring high school football fans" all nine of Marquette’s home and away games this fall. It’s the first time the station has been a broadcast partner with one team. Emily Dillinger, Good Karma’s director of communication and education, wasn’t sure how many other high schools and radio stations in the state had such a relationship, if any, but she said it did seem unusual for this area.
"This is the first we’ve done something like this," Dillinger said in an email, "and it was because we saw how successful the Marquette broadcasts were when we aired a number of teams in the postseason in the past. It made sense to think about Marquette University High School when we were considering covering a team on a consistent basis."
Gabe Neitzel, the on-air co-host of 540 ESPN’s Homer & Gabe weekday show, will call play-by-play, and Mike Podoll, associate publisher of "This is AFCA Magazine" – a publication for the American Football Coaches Association – will offer color commentary. In addition to the game call, ESPN Milwaukee will have an onsite "street team activation presence" at Marquette’s five home games in Wauwatosa’s Hart Park. On Sept. 9 against Menomonee Falls, there will be a celebration of the 1,000th game in Hilltoppers football history.
As for non-Marquette coverage, ESPN Milwaukee will have Friday pregame, halftime and postgame shows, which will focus on other high schools throughout the area and have updates with game scores, but "we won’t have reporters or specific programming dedicated to other schools," Dillinger said.
Partnerships between high schools and local radio stations aren’t uncommon, especially in football-mad regions of the country like the South and Southeast – and particularly in Texas, where this reporter worked and saw many of them – but they appear to be rare in Wisconsin.
Mike McGivern, 105.7 FM The Fan’s High School Insider the last eight years, thought the arrangement was unique, at least for this part of the state. McGivern, who’s been involved in area prep sports as a coach and commentator for more than 30 years, said stations – including 105.7 FM – in the past have tried different approaches, such as covering all the games of one conference or broadcasting a highlighted game of the week.
Every Friday, The Fan sends 20 or so stringers – sideline reporters – to 20 or so "key" football games in different conferences throughout the area, McGivern said, trying to "cast a wide net" and "give all of our listeners a reason to tune in." Rather than broadcast a game in full, 105.7 FM does a sponsored scoreboard show, wherein "we send it out to a game, they tell us what’s going on, it’s rapid fire," McGivern said. The updates, which often include a postgame coach interview, last one to two minutes and there are usually five or six per segment during the night.
Additionally, McGivern hosts The Coaches Show on Saturday mornings – along with local football legend Ron Davies in the fall – bringing on different high school and college coaches. "I think we found our niche with that," McGivern said.
For its part, The Big 920 AM, Milwaukee’s third sports radio station, also has a full-season lineup of on-air football scheduled this fall. The High School Game of the Week, concentrated on southeastern Wisconsin, will offer play-by-play from Dan Pfeifer and be followed by Football Friday Night, a roundup show hosted out of Madison and broadcast statewide.
Mitch Nelles, host of the eponymous afternoon show on The Big 920 and a former on-air personality at ESPN Milwaukee, also believed 540 AM's partnership with Marquette was unique. He remembered that, about 10 years ago, the station did something similar in the playoffs, following a single team, but not for the entire season.
Marquette is one of the largest high schools in the area – and a private institution with a relatively affluent alumni base – and the football team has won nine state championships, most recently in 2009. Perhaps the school is paying for the coverage, maybe a donor is sponsoring it or, as ESPN Milwaukee said, it’s because of past broadcasts’ success that the team and station have forged this distinctive partnership.
Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see and hear how ESPN Milwaukee’s Hilltopper-centric coverage is received by listeners, especially given the provincial ardor of prep sports fans, and if it is a litmus test for other stations’ high school broadcast strategies in the future.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.