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Local stations should amp up sports coverage

All you have to do is look at what people are wearing around Western New York to realize that this is a sports-crazy town.

The year-round wardrobe includes Bills shirts and Sabres caps, as well as a variety of clothing celebrating the sports teams at area colleges and high schools.

That would make you think that the local television stations would make sports coverage a major part of their newscasts. It has done anything but.

Channel 7 made a step in the right direction last week when it announced it is adding a third sportscaster, Jason Gruenauer, to its on-air staff of Jeff Russo and Shawn Stepner.

General Manager Mike Nurse said he added a third sports staffer to do more than just carry highlights. It would also allow the station to change the way sports is covered by going beyond telling people the score and other things they already know.

“I think sports is very important in this market,” Nurse said.

Channel 7’s sports staff is still one short of the four-person, on-air sports staff team that Channel 2 has been fielding for years. But it is one more sports staffer than Channel 4 has had since Robin Adams left the station four years ago.

Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner, who rarely talks about competitors, wasn’t surprised by Channel 7’s sports upgrade. “I don’t know how you do it with two,” said Toellner. “I don’t how you cover everything with two. It doesn’t surprise me they added a third.”

It is more surprising that Channel 4 never replaced Adams. How “does it do it with two?” By using news personnel to anchor sports and cover sports stories, which insults the audience and its sports staffers by saying that anyone can do it and no expertise is needed.

The surprising thing for many viewers is how little respect that sports coverage gets around here on TV. The sports reports generally get around three minutes, except on Channel 2’s 10 p.m. newscast and on weekends when there is little local news around here except for crime stories, parades, festivals and concerts.

And those three minutes follow four or five minutes of weather reports in which meteorologists tell us it is 72 in Jamestown, 70 in Mayville, 71 in Orchard Park, 70 in Buffalo and … well you get the idea. The weather anchors actually give more numbers than the sports anchors do when their reports air – after and before – long commercial breaks.

The short sports reports in a town that loves its professional teams usually means that coverage of local sports and nontraditional high school sports is sacrificed, which is self-defeating since parents of athletes are potential viewers. Amusingly, the traditional high school sports like football, baseball and basketball continue to get the most coverage here even though sports like lacrosse, volleyball, hockey and soccer are increasingly popular and often send more elite players to colleges. Any extra time to cover sports should give those sports more respect.

Why does TV disrespect sports coverage? National consultants long have viewed sports as the least important part of a newscast and they have more ammunition now.

One theory is that viewers go to ESPN to see national highlights. And now ESPN has competition with cable sports channels from FOX, CBS and NBC. Another theory is that women aren’t as interested in sports as they are in weather. There also is the theory that people go to team websites or social networks to get their sports fix. The fourth theory is that late-night sportscasts compete with live competition on one of the cable sports channels.

I understand the theories, even if they apply less here.

The Bills and the Sabres really haven’t been significant enough as franchises to get much coverage from ESPN and the other sports networks.

If you look at wardrobes around here and attend sporting events, you see that many Western New York women are heavily into sports.

The local ratings for the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and New York Yankees baseball illustrate this area’s passion for sports.

The most-read blogs in this newspaper are focused on the Bills and the Sabres and the leagues they play in.

Twitter and Facebook feeds here are often dominated by sports comments.

The popularity of the area’s top sports station – WGR radio – also illustrates the importance of sports. Buffalo Spree magazine even named WGR’s Mike Schopp the area’s “favorite media personality” in its July issue.

I love Spree. I had a great experience writing for it for more than a year, but that choice shocked me. I would have agreed several years ago that Schopp “is a breath of fresh air,” but he has turned into an annoying, arrogant talk show host who spouts ludicrous ideas and then seems to reverse himself.

Still, Spree’s choice speaks to the area’s sports passion. However, the choice of a radio talker as “favorite media personality” makes you wonder what happened to the days when the popular TV sports personalities in town included Rick Azar and Van Miller. Now that Channel 2’s Ed Kilgore has left the air, there is no area TV sportscaster with the longevity, star power or influence of those in the past.

Channel 2’s Adam Benigni is the current dean of area sportscasters and seems to be the most likely to fill that role because he is the most opinionated and is on the station that values sports the most.

I’ve been critical of his backup, Jonah Javad, because he has come out blazing with opinions before many viewers have gotten to know him. But he has the right idea. Opinions are one way to make viewers pay more attention to sports coverage.

In my opinion, stations should stop listening to tired theories and give sports almost as much attention as the weather here. It would be “a breath of fresh air” and might even help their sports staffers become bigger personalities in the process.