SBD/Issue 49/Sports Industrialists

Catching Up With NESN President Sean McGrail

NESN President Sean McGrail
SEAN McGRAIL has served as NESN President since May '00. During McGrail's tenure, NESN has grown into one of the most popular media services in New England, growing from a premium service with 400,000 subscribers to a standard service with over 4.2 million homes in the region, plus national distribution through DirecTV and Dish Network. During this week's SportsBusiness Daily and SportsBusiness Journal's FSA Sports Media & Technology Conference in N.Y., McGrail took time to speak with Assistant Managing Editor Austin Karp about the present and future state of NESN, cable sports nets as a whole and which of his alma maters he will be cheering for during the Beanpot.

Favorite TV shows
: “Outside the Games,” “Boston Legal,” “Family Guy”
Favorite web sites: Yahoo Sports, WSJ.com, NYTimes.com
Cheering section in the Beanpot -- Northeastern Univ. or Boston Univ.: Gotta go with the Terriers (BU).
Exec outside of sports you most admire: Jack Welch
Besides NESN, most admired sports network: ESPN

Q: You live in Hopkinton (MA), home to the start of the Boston Marathon. What's traffic like for the start of the race?

McGrail: Fortunately I get to avoid that, as I'm always at the Red Sox morning game on Patriot Day.

Q: In a perfect world, if you could have any part of the Red Sox digital rights, what would it be?

McGrail: I think an online component is essential for any network. It’s my hope that with baseball rights that RSNs will be able to work with teams and the leagues to distribute online media, mobile media. RSNs are in a unique position to distribute that content. They already have relationships with all the core distributors, and are in the best position to monetize those rights without placing the entire system of sports rights fees in jeopardy. As content continues to be consumed in different ways, RSNs distributing that kind of product alleviate some of the concerns and alleviate some of the concerns on cannibalization.

 
Q: Besides the Red Sox and Bruins, what programming does well in the ratings that would surprise people?

McGrail: A couple of years ago, we started a new division called ONE (Original NESN Entertainment). Their job was to program for NESN's core audience, which, like Red Sox viewers, splits almost 50/50 male to female. What ONE has done is bring those viewers to other parts of the network. We just finished our second season of “Sox Appeal” which is our reality dating show that takes place at Fenway Park. We also will finish our second series in December of “NESN Comedy All-Stars,” which is a stand-up comedy series shot in Boston based around sports. We also had the “Boston-New York Poker Challenge,” and now we’re shooting a new hockey-based NHL show called “The Instigators” featuring Mike Milbury.

Q: Do you think the Nielsen ratings system is fair?  Should out-of-home measurement be more of an important issue among sports networks?

McGrail: Do I think it’s fair? Yes I think it’s fair. Statistically, I think it’s a reasonably accurate system. We’ve looked at this extensively, particularly with the advent of the personal people meter. I think people are always trying to improve on that product. ... I think it could add a lot more granularity to the data that is available. But, yes, the real problem is that because sports is a real communal activity, because sports is tribal, people tend to gather in restaurants and bars to watch, and that out-of-home viewing is not tracked accurately. I think sports in general is really missing out on that one.

Q: What part of your daily routine would surprise people?

McGrail: The time I spend outside the traditional TV business looking at how content is being consumed on non-traditional platforms like mobile devices. It’s imperative that NESN stays at the forefront of that.

 
Q: Any plans to rebrand the NESN logo?

McGrail: We’ve had some discussions on that. I won’t say never, but we have 20 years of brand identity with it, so for now, it’s going to stay.

Q: How is the economy affecting NESN?

McGrail: On the distribution side, cable and satellite are recession-resistant. We’re very fortunate there. I think people tend to view cable as a better value when they can spend more time at home and look for more less expensive activities. Cable can be of tremendous value to the consumer there. On advertising, 2008 was a difficult year, and I think 2009 is going to be a very difficult year. However, sports networks in general, and networks like NESN, will fare better than most. NESN is uniquely positioned in that we are relying a lot on pro sports, which is the last real avenue for appointment TV. It’s virtually DVR-proof, has really high viewer interest and has the highest viewer engagement of any product. So people are very enamored with our games and our content, and on top of that we can deliver to our advertisers things that traditional networks cannot. We can integrate people and weave them into our telecast so advertisers can take advantage of the brand identification of our core franchises -- the Red Sox and Bruins -- which is something unique compared to the traditional 30-second spot on entertainment programming.

Q: What sports business story will you be following over the next year?

McGrail: How in-market streaming develops with different leagues and franchises around the country. Obviously it’s very important to both sides of our business -- baseball and hockey -- and I think it’s an intrical part of our future.

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