SBJ/August 21 - 27, 2006/SBJ In Depth

No rush by networks to broadcast youth sports

In mid-July, executives from the New England Sports Network were talking about their plans to brand August “Kids Month.” They were going to center their programming on live action from Little League baseball’s New England regional tournament and schedule more youth sports programming than they had in the past.

Pop Warner football would like more TV exposure,
but faces stiff competition for on-air time.
In a decision that is a microcosm of the challenges youth sports face in today’s TV landscape, NESN executives wound up scratching those plans. It seems the Little League games would have run into some of the network’s Red Sox coverage, which led to one of the easiest programming decisions NESN officials have ever had to make. They sided with the Sox.

While there seems to be more sports networks than ever, the national and regional sports networks are not beating a path to acquire more youth sports programming. Other than youth baseball and the odd high school football or basketball game, televised youth sports are about as rare as music videos on MTV.

While some youth sports are finding their way onto TV screens more frequently, they’re usually little more than filler programming. Many RSNs that SportsBusiness Journal contacted weren’t interested in pursuing youth sports, especially with the glut of higher-quality college and professional sports already available. Youth sports are viewed as too niche and not likely to draw big ratings or significant ad dollars.

“Our schedules are pretty filled up with our local pro teams and local collegiate teams,” said Bob Thompson, president of Fox Sports Net.

For the most part, TV networks are drawn to youth baseball more than any other youth sport. Part of the reason is because of the romance associated with the sport. When discussing ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series, Ed Erhardt, the network’s president of customer marketing and sales, refers frequently to the event’s legacy and the place it has in the American psyche. “It’s a sporting event that’s been with the company for decades,” Erhardt said. “It’s a wonderful property. It’s part of Americana.”

Youth baseball also is attractive to bigger sports networks because its championships occur in August, when it doesn’t have to compete with other sports. This month, ESPN and ESPN2 will televise 38 games from the Little League World Series tournament, with ABC broadcasting the U.S. championship game on Aug. 26 and the tournament championship on Aug. 27. (Last year, ABC pulled a 2.5 rating from two LLWS games, ESPN had a 0.9 rating from 21 games and ESPN2 a 0.7 rating from 15 games.)

Last weekend, OLN telecast the Cal Ripken World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds. Last month, OLN bought the rights to the event through next year. Previously, it was carried on Fox Sports Net. OLN would not say how much it paid for the rights.

“I don’t know that we are prepared from our regional networks to start going out and covering local Little League games,” Fox Sports Net’s Thompson said. “If it was something on more of a national scale, we might be interested.”

Meanwhile, Pop Warner Little Scholars football, which has been around since 1929, plays its championship games in December, when the college and pro basketball, college and pro football and professional ice hockey seasons are in full swing. Pop Warner executives are convinced that its end-of-season tournament would be as popular as the Little League World Series if it didn’t face as much on-air sports competition.

ESPN has telecast Pop Warner’s championship game since 1997, but it’s always on tape and usually scheduled a month after the actual game. Last year’s game on Christmas Day scored a 0.4 rating. The league’s executive director, Jon Butler, said he’s been talking with the NFL Network to show some of its tournament games live, particularly regional championships on Thanksgiving weekend. No deal has been signed. ESPN holds the rights to the championship game through its deal with the NFL.

None of the executives SportsBusiness Journal contacted shied away from youth sports because of concerns that they are taking advantage of children and over-commercializing their pure sports.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with putting youth games on TV,” said Joel Feld, vice president of programming, production and executive producer for NESN. “There’s a market for and a benefit to covering youth sports.”

Marc Fein, OLN’s senior vice president of programming and production, keeps his eye out for sports that could fit on OLN’s schedule. Other than the Ripken series, however, OLN does not televise any youth sports. RSNs such as NESN also shy away from airing youth sports.

Any sport that ultimately makes OLN’s schedule has to meet specific criteria for Fein to even consider it:

  • Is the organization sound and solid?
  • Are the sport’s participation levels increasing or decreasing?
  • What is the sport’s TV ratings history?
  • Will it have ad support?
  • Will it be held during a time of year when it won’t be lost in the shuffle?

“We picked up the Cal Ripken World Series because there were good people behind it,” Fein said. “It’s a property we can help grow.”

ESPN has covered high school games in the past, specifically when LeBron James was playing for Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. It also covers teenagers who compete professionally, such as golfer Michelle Wie. But the network doesn’t tie advertising to a specific youth game.

“We didn’t go out and sell LeBron’s high school games as individual games,” Erhardt said. “It was part of a broader rotation.”

Even networks that televise action sports, which cater to the youth demo, shy away from covering young kids. Fox’s Fuel network is wrapping up a pilot for a show focused on the younger set that profiles action sports athletes 15 years or younger. However, the network focuses more on trying to get kids to compete rather than hyping the competition between them.

“We try to focus on the idea of participation as opposed to competition,” said C.J. Olivares, assistant general manager and senior vice president at Fuel. “It’s that idea of getting out, being active, participating and pushing yourself to be your best and excel that we really focus on 90 percent of the time, rather than win and competition and beating the other guy.”

As for NESN and its ill-fated “Kids Month,” executives are optimistic that they will be ready for next August.

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