SBJ/20091109/SBJ In-Depth

What’s ahead for league-owned networks?

MLB Network
Launch date: January 2009
Subscribers: 54 million
What will it look like in 2014?

MLB discovered the strength of live game programming almost immediately after its launch this year. The channel’s production of World Baseball Classic games during the spring was one of the key early drivers for the network.

“I don’t think we could have spent 10 times the money in general marketing spend and get the same recognition we got from that programming and production spend,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB’s executive vice president of business. “Baseball fans found MLB Network to be able to watch the World Baseball Classic.”

MLB executives are quick to acknowledge the power of live MLB games as the surest way to expand the network. Last season, the MLB Network carried more than 50 live MLB games.

“We know from the cable networks and the broadcast networks in the sports business, it’s live events that really draw the customers in,” Brosnan said.  “You can make a lot of money on syndicated shows and talk and highlights. But you draw bigger audiences on events.”

Still, Brosnan said MLB is not close to making a decision on whether to add to the channel’s live game schedule when the league’s TV contracts with ESPN, Fox and TBS end in 2013. “The biggest decisions that are going to have to be made in our industry as it relates to MLB Network is the depth and level of events that we put on our air,” he said.

In the meantime, Brosnan said the network could grow with nongame programming, such as awards shows, draft coverage and fantasy programming.

Launch date: November 1999
Subscribers: 45 million homes
What will it look like in 2014?

NBA executives are quick to credit Turner Sports for gains that NBA TV made in distribution and content quality over the past year since the league ceded day-to-day control of its channel.

The channel tripled its distribution to where it is now available in 45 million homes. And its programming has been invigorated with new talent and shows, including live games. In both cases, the NBA has relied on Turner’s business and production savvy.

“We’ve made a quantum leap [with NBA TV’s cable distribution], and I definitely believe there’s a direct nexus between that and the additional slate of talent and expertise that Turner has brought to this partnership to make NBA TV a more compelling property,” NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Adam Silver said soon after deals with Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Dish Network were announced.

One of the ways NBA TV was able to cut those deals was by tying carriage of its out-of-market NBA League Pass with better carriage terms for the network. It also dropped the per-subscriber license fee.

The NBA’s television deals with ESPN and Turner extend through 2016, so there won’t be a new game package available to the channel until then. In the meantime, NBA TV will focus on putting several games per week on its schedule, including what it calls “Fan Night,” where fans vote for the game they want to see.

NBA TV will have 96 live regular-season games on its schedule this season, plus a slate of playoff games.

NHL Network (U.S.)
Launch date: October 2007
Subscribers: 30 million homes
What will it look like in 2014?

With 56 games on its schedule, NHL Network already depends much more on live games than other league-owned networks. As its TV deals with Versus and NBC come up in 2011, expect the league to put even more games on the network.

“In terms of games, the network has huge growth potential and is strategically important in terms of how our media mix and how we ultimately serve the fan,” said the league’s chief operating officer, John Collins. “I can see its role growing and its importance growing as we begin to think about what role the NHL Network plays in the next big rights negotiation for us.”

One of the reasons the NHL depends on NHL Network for live games, highlights and preview shows is to give its viewers content that is in short supply elsewhere on TV.

“As of right now, we think the NHL is not getting its fair representation in the broader world of sports,” Collins said.

In addition to live games, Collins expects to bolster that programming with highlights and inside access that networks don’t have. He expects the better programming will play a part in helping the network expand its cable and satellite distribution footprint.

“Our longer-term plan is to get that network as broadly distributed as we can and really deliver on the promise of serving these fans, primarily with access,” Collins said. “It’s live game content, but it’s also access that they can’t get anywhere else.

NFL Network
Launch date: November 2003
Subscribers: 50 million homes
What will it look like in 2014?

NFL Network’s deal to carry an annual schedule of eight live regular-season games ends in 2013. And league executives are quick to dismiss the notion that the channel’s biggest growth potential lies in the need to expand to a full 16-game schedule. Rather, they point to more cable distribution and increased ratings as two areas where the channel can still grow.

“We have a lot of room to grow without adding any game packages,” said Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s head of new media.

NFL Network hit the 50 million-home distribution mark earlier this year, thanks mainly to the carriage deal it cut with the country’s biggest cable operator, Comcast. The channel still hasn’t signed deals with top-five cable operators Time Warner, Charter and Cablevision. If signed, those deals would take NFL Network well north of the 60 million-home mark.

Rolapp pointed to the channel’s programming as another area of focus. As the ratings grow, so, too, will the ad dollars.

“Before you even talk about the addition of live game packages, we have a lot of growth still left in the model we have now,” Rolapp said. “That’s where we’re focused.”

NFL Network’s growth is, in part, tied to the growth of the league’s newest channel, NFL Red Zone. In September, the league launched the channel, which provides live look-ins to Sunday afternoon games.

— Compiled by John Ourand

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