One of the biggest coups during Bill Olsen’s tenure as athletic director at the University of Louisville was snatching first broadcast rights on WHAS Radio away from the University of Kentucky in 1980.
“Kentucky had had first priority on WHAS for more than 35 years,” Olsen recalls. “The UK people assumed that would always be the case so they just took for granted they would be top dog.”
Well, it just so happened that Bob Scherer, the general manager at WHAS at the time, was a close neighbor of Olsen’s. Scherer was also a U of L fan, even occasionally following the Cards on the road. U of L basketball was going great guns at the time, cutting deeply into UK’s fan base in Louisville.
“I talked with him several weeks because I knew the contract was coming up again,” said Olsen. “It was on a very hush-hush basis. Everybody on our staff and theirs were sworn to secrecy. Bob liked the idea because he knew U of L fans outnumbered UK followers in the local market.”
Meanwhile, Olsen had been approached by Jim Host (yes, the same Jim Host, chairman of the Arena Authority) who operated the UK broadcasting network. Host was interested in creating a statewide U of L network as well. “He asked me which would be better, having a statewide network or having WHAS. I told him WHAS would be more impactful. At the same time, I continued to work with Bob Scherer on broadcast rights.”
When the contract expired, Olsen got a call from Scherer asking him if U of L was ready to sign for priority rights, and history was made, creating anger, gnashing of teeth, and consternation among UK fans in many parts of the state. The station management even reported a few death threats.
“It was a sweet deal,” said Olsen. “It didn’t cost us anything. We gained great exposure. There was no Internet or satellite radio back then so WHAS was about your only option to reach fans outside of Louisville. There are a lot more options today.”
The deal lasted until the 2007-08 season, a year after UK had paid WHAS more than $1 million to regain priority status. To lessen the blow on U of L fans, Clear Channel Radio, owner of WHAS, provided U of L with a statewide network, as well as 50,000-watt stations in Cincinnati and Indianapolis for Cards’ broadcasts. U of L also has an agreement with Sirius satellite radio.
If you’ve been in far Western Kentucky or Southern Kentucky attempting to pick up a U of L game on WHAS, you know the value of the statewide network. WHAS is often impossible to receive in those locations.