By now you've likely heard today's big news: This morning Bob Uecker announced he's cutting back on his broadcasting schedule for 2014. He'll continue to call all of the Brewers' home games at Miller Park but is going to skip an unnamed number of road trips. Uecker is 80 years old, so it's understandable for him to not want to commit to the rigorous travel of a full MLB season.
Unfortunately, this morning's news forced us to once again acknowledge an unfortunate truth: At some point, hopefully far off in the future, we're going to have to confront a world where Bob Uecker is no longer the voice of the Brewers. Adam McCalvy and I started to talk about it in this Twitter conversation:
@AdamMcCalvy Yeah, this terrifies me. Ueck's departure could have a serious negative impact on baseball in Wisconsin.— Brew Crew Ball (@BrewCrewBall) January 30, 2014
I drew some pushback for that statement, but I stand by it. Uecker's eventual departure could present the Brewers with a major challenge if they want to stay relevant to a statewide audience.
Consider for a moment the Brewers Radio Network. In 2013 it was 37 radio stations across the state of Wisconsin, including one just across the border in Michigan. That network is a virtual guarantee that if you're anywhere in the state of Wisconsin, you have a radio and the Brewers are playing (and the Packers aren't), you can hear the game.
A lot of those network affiliates have been with the Brewers a long time, enduring some pretty lean years. Many of them have stuck with the team through back-to-back 90 loss seasons in the 70's and 80's, a long stretch of mediocrity in the 90's, 106 losses in 2002 and the worst month in franchise history in 2013. Even when the team is awful, though, affiliates tend to stick around. That's because, even when the Brewers are bad, it's worth their while to carry what could effectively be called the Bob Uecker Show.
Sometimes it feels like a sacrilege to say this, but I know not everyone loves listening to Uecker call a game. Some hardcore baseball fans get frustrated when the game becomes a side note to a long-winded story or when Uecker makes a routine fly ball sound like a 450-foot homer. But there are countless other observers across the state with varying levels of interest in the team that tune in just to listen to his call.
And those fans who only care about Uecker? They're still listening to the Brewers. Even if it wasn't their intention, they're keeping informed on the team's day-to-day performance. They're staying engaged. The day after Bob Uecker's final broadcast, some of those fans are going to tune out. A portion of them may never come back.
On that day, it's going to be hard to convince stations far away from Milwaukee to continue to invest the time and resources into remaining part of the network. Maybe most of us won't notice the loss of affiliates like WXCE in Amery, WJMC in Rice Lake or WCQM in Park Falls. But for fans of the Brewers living outside Milwaukee, it'll start to hit home when games get pre-empted or dropped entirely on stations like WKTY in La Crosse, WATQ in Eau Claire or WSAU in Wausau.
One of the selling points of Miller Park has been that the ability to close the roof allows fans to drive down to Milwaukee from all over the state and know the scheduled game will be played. Having Brewer fans coming in from all directions is part of the reason the Brewers are capable of selling 3 million tickets.
But what happens, then, if fans across the farther-out portions of the state lose a reason to stay engaged? What happens if the Brewers transition to being southern Wisconsin's team? Or even southeastern Wisconsin's team? Unfortunately, we don't have to look far for the answer to that question.
As much as we'd all like to believe Bob Uecker will be around this team forever, this is a problem the Brewers are going to have to face someday. I have no idea how I'd handle it.