Ben Wagner out as Blue Jays radio voice after Sportsnet declines to renew contract
Toronto Blue Jays announcer Ben Wagner sits in the broadcast booth in Toronto, Sunday, April 10, 2022. Wagner will not return to the team's broadcast booth next year.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, November 29, 2023 4:15PM EST
TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays will have a new radio voice next season after rights-holder Sportsnet elected not to renew the contract of broadcaster Ben Wagner.
The network confirmed the decision in a statement on Wednesday.
“After six seasons as the voice of our baseball radio broadcasts, Sportsnet has decided not to renew Ben Wagner's contract for next season. Thank you, Ben, for sharing your voice and expertise with listeners across Canada. We wish you the very best.”
Wagner succeeded longtime radio voice Jerry Howarth in the position. Howarth retired in early 2018 after 36 years of calling games for Canada's lone Major League Baseball team.
Sportsnet plans to announce its radio broadcast plans “prior to the start of the 2024 season,” network spokesman Jason Jackson said in an email.
Interview requests with Sportsnet executives were declined. A message left with Wagner was not immediately returned.
Before moving to the big leagues, Wagner spent 11 seasons as a radio and television broadcaster for the Buffalo Bisons, the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate. The 43-year-old native of New Paris, Ind., started broadcasting professional baseball games in 2004 with the Class-A Lakewood BlueClaws.
Wagner was always an early arrival at the ballpark before each Blue Jays game. He had a penchant for asking thoughtful, probing questions to help strengthen the storytelling on the broadcast.
His ability to do that was hampered starting in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the season and forced broadcasters around the sports world to pivot due to travel and access restrictions.
Sportsnet has yet to resume a full-time pre-pandemic setup of regular on-site radio broadcasts of road games.
“Radio (play by play) is not long for this world in the SN ecosystem,” sports media analyst Adam Seaborn said in a text message. “Not an area to invest, to grow or to build.”
In 2021, Sportsnet decided to simulcast television broadcasts on its radio network. The much-criticized decision left Toronto as the lone big-league market without a dedicated radio broadcast crew.
At the time, the network said the decision to streamline production was made to minimize travel and closely adhere to team, league, and government protocols related to the pandemic.
Wagner, meanwhile, remained with the broadcast team by providing live hits from the Blue Jays' temporary home of TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., and serving as a contributor to radio and television segments.
The team later played home games in Buffalo, N.Y., before eventually returning to Rogers Centre.
In an early-season 2021 interview with The Canadian Press, Wagner said he had a “wide range of emotion” when told of the radio developments for that year.
“A lot of momentum from this past off-season led to a lot of disappointment,” Wagner said. “I love the craft of radio. I love the nuances of baseball on radio, let alone just live sporting events on radio.”
“It was hard not to take it personally, but with that then came opportunity,” he added. “(Like) the fact that I'm involved with the No. 1 product on how Blue Jays baseball is consumed by its fanbase. I've been given way more opportunity and greater opportunity to show my skillset and do new things at the same time in this company.”
In 2022, Sportsnet used remote coverage for road games - Wagner called games from a screen at the network's Toronto studio - before shifting back to traditional in-person broadcasts for most of the second half of the season.
Remote coverage resumed in 2023 and continued for the entire season. The Blue Jays were one of only two franchises in Major League Baseball - the other being the Los Angeles Angels - that did not go back to on-site radio coverage of road games.
Seaborn, the head of partnerships at Toronto-based media company Playmaker Capital, said having an owner (Rogers Communications) that also owns the TV and radio network, the stadium and the team “creates a culture of cost-cutting as opposed to competition.”
“If the team was owned by a random billionaire, the radio rights would go up for bid every 5-10 years, and the highest bidder would be forced to put a guy on the road and put together a top-notch broadcast,” he said.
The Blue Jays will kick off the 2024 regular season on March 28 at Tampa Bay.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.