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SBJ/March 10 - 16, 2008/One On One
In the TV swamp, ‘the only firm ground is big events’
Published March 10, 2008
David Hill has just emerged from one of the most successful six-month stretches in the history of sports broadcasting. Starting with the World Series in October, Hill, as chairman of Fox Sports, has overseen wildly successful productions of most major sporting events in the country, including the BCS championship game, Super Bowl and Daytona 500. True to his reputation, Hill developed new ideas that are certain to be mimicked by his competitors, from the Ryan Seacrest-hosted red carpet at the Super Bowl to the Gopher Cam at Daytona. Hill spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal media reporter John Ourand.
piece of music: Anything by
Favorite vacation spot: Cape Cod
Favorite book: Whatever I’m reading at the moment. Currently, it’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” by Eric Foner
Favorite movie: The original “Heaven Can Wait”
Best sports movie: “Major League”
Most influential person: Personally, my mother. Professionally, Roone Arledge
Greatest extravagance: Good red wine
Biggest challenge: Not rushing back to surf at Sydney’s northern beaches
Regrets: Not trademarking the “Fox Box”
Best professional advice received: From Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer. “For God’s sake, don’t screw it up or else I’ll kill you.”
We’re only a couple of races in, but ratings
are up for NASCAR so far. Why?
Hill: NASCAR Nation heard loud and clear what Brian France had to say. I have never known a sport to go through so many fundamental changes in such a short period of time. Brian reassured the faithful three weeks prior to Daytona when he said that everything old is new again. A lot of questions about the car of tomorrow have been answered. It’s proved to be really exciting racing. The signs thus far are incredibly positive.
It’s not just NASCAR. Ratings are up for the
NFL, Super Bowl …
Hill: NFC Championship, BCS, baseball.
But we keep hearing that TV is fragmented and
ratings are going to keep going down and setting new lows. Can ratings keep
Hill: It’s not about the rating. It’s about the profitability of the business.
Do the current numbers surprise you?
Hill: If we do all of our jobs and everything comes together, the ratings will be fine. But it’s not the ratings in and of itself.
But my next five questions are about ratings.
Hill: So what? Ratings might be down. But is the business profitable? That’s the question. Never forget one solid thing. Television in all its forms — cable, broadcast — is a very shaky swamp. The only firm ground is big events. The biggest of the big events — as Fox Sports has proved over these last six months — is sports. With big-time sports, we can virtually guarantee the eyeballs.
Do you see any new models in terms of how
networks deal with the leagues beyond right fees?
Hill: Who knows? The modeling might change. The modeling might remain the same. I don’t know. But it’s going to be a sad day for the leagues if the current model disappears. It would require a lot of late nights on Park Avenue, with the lights burning to try and figure out what their economic structure looks like without the networks.
So then why are leagues launching NFL Network
and MLB Channel to compete with you?
Hill: What’s the financial viability of the NFL Network? Do you think the NFL is going to say to the networks, “See you later. We’re going to go make our money off of the NFL Network”?
If we’re talking about 20 years, yeah, I can
see that as an end goal.
Hill: It could well be in 20 years, but certainly not in the next decade. Same thing with MLB Network. Talk to David Stern. He’s had NBA Network going for what, 15 years now?
So what are the biggest threats leagues face
Hill: The real threat for the leagues is the sports-only channels because a league puts a sport on a sports-only channel, you can guarantee that the ratings are going to die. How do you attract a new viewer to a fan base if you are speaking to the converted? The reason why leagues should embrace network coverage is because it allows them to continually refresh their fan base. On a multi-entertainment choice, you stand the chance of attracting new fans.
Hill: Look at what happened to NASCAR over the last seven years, if you don’t believe that. That’s where the burst came. NASCAR was on three multi-entertainment platforms: NBC, Turner and Fox. Viewers flocked to it. As soon as you put a sport on an exclusive sports channel, you’re then excluding new viewers from coming in. If you can’t refresh your audience base, where are the new fans coming from?
You’re talking beyond broadcast versus cable.
You’re saying that TBS versus ESPN, you’d sooner be on TBS.
Hill: It stands to reason. I’m not making anything up. It’s just as plain as your face. If you’re on a multi-entertainment channel, someone is going to be watching that channel, and they are going to go, “Wow, I’d like to see this.”
With the Mitchell Report and steroids,
baseball has gone through a tough offseason.
Hill: As it did last year, if you recall.
Are you concerned at all about the health of …
Hill: No. No. Not at all.
Hill: Because experience would dictate that it’s not going to have any negative impact on viewer enjoyment of the sport.
The NBA and the NHL are the two main sports
you don’t have on air …
Hill: There’s a number of sports that we don’t have on our air. We don’t have the Olympics. We don’t have golf. We don’t have NHL. We don’t have NBA. We don’t have open car racing.
Do you have any interest in any of those
sports for the broadcast network?
Hill: We’ve had our chance in the past. We had hockey for a while. … We bid what we thought was fair and worthwhile. The sport decided to make a decision to go with another broadcaster. They go, we go. That’s fine. Look at the ratings today.
Do the ratings today tell you that you don’t
want them then?
Hill: Yes. What do you think?
I don’t know. Why weren’t you interested in
Hill: Suffice to say, we didn’t bid on it. It’s all an economic thing. … You can put the bid in and they can decide to go somewhere else because someone values it more. It’s as simple as that. It’s like going to a supermarket. You’ve got $100 and you can buy 300 pounds of potatoes or a jar of caviar. It’s up to you.
How would you spend that $100?
Hill: It depends. I’d probably take a mix of both because I love my caviar and potato blintzes. That’s what I’d be doing.