SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Media

NESN president ‘ecstatic’ about regional network’s new home

When NESN was founded in 1984, it was the smallest network in New England, yet it found a niche as a successful premium channel with year-round Red Sox and Bruins programming. “At the start, we almost were pay-per-view, powering up for the game, then shutting down when it ended,” said Sean McGrail, the network’s president.

Today, NESN is the largest network in the six-state region, available in more than 4 million homes. In February, NESN moved from cramped quarters at Fenway Park to a 41,000-square-foot studio in Watertown, Mass., a facility McGrail oversaw from planning to completion. All programming is locally produced and it’s all in HD and 5.1 digital Dolby surround sound. A new sound of spring is a batted ball hitting Fenway’s now-wired Green Monster in left field.

Privately owned by the Red Sox and Bruins, NESN rarely cites specific ratings numbers and never talks of its profitability, but McGrail says, “Our goal is to replicate a national network programming model on a regional scale.” McGrail, 46, spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal correspondent Bill Griffith.

You’re well-known in the industry but keep a low profile with NESN’s viewers. Why?

McGrail: We’re very team-oriented. We stress the success and profile of the organization over the individual. I tend to be more of a collaborative leader, not a self-promoter.

What was the biggest risk in growing NESN?

NESN’s innovations go beyond HD: It wired
Fenway Park’s Green Monster for sound.
McGrail: The first came when we converted from a pay channel to basic cable. At that time [summer 2001], distributors weren’t aggressively launching new services and carriers were considering sports tiering. We were fortunate because we had long-standing relationships with our cable partners. … The second was jumping into HD in 2003, well ahead of the industry curve. We had the encouragement of both the Red Sox and our distribution partners. But the reality was that no one was doing HD.

Does sports drive HD distribution?

McGrail: Absolutely. The Boston market has higher than average HD penetration at approximately 20 percent.

How is the new facility? You started working on the transfer last August and moved in on Feb. 27, the target date.

McGrail: Frankly, I’m ecstatic. No visitor to this facility can appreciate it if they never were in the old place, where people had to squeeze by each other in passageways or back up to let someone else get by. The tough part is that we’re working with an all new HD infrastructure. It’s a huge operational challenge for our staff.

How has the new Red Sox ownership affected NESN’s activities?

McGrail: They’re an aggressive and entrepreneurial ownership group, especially [chairman] Tom Werner, who has an extensive TV background and understands both our needs and potential. The Bruins also have been supportive and bought into what we all thought that NESN could become.

What are some of the challenges facing RSNs?

McGrail: The competition for rights fees, the emergence of new media delivery systems, industry consolidation and consumer sensitivity to rate increases. There’s more competition for rights across the board. … Contrary to a lot of people’s perception, if we don’t produce, the Red Sox or Bruins could take their rights elsewhere.

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