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Live streaming of local NBA games will be virtually nonexistent this season as teams and TV networks struggle to create a moneymaking model out of the digital rights.
Once considered the hottest new service in the market, results from initial rollouts have been disappointing. Comcast SportsNet launched live streaming in two markets last year — Chicago and Philadelphia — and wound up with less than 1,000 subscribers for each. The Portland Trail Blazers said they attracted 800 to 1,000 online viewers for the 15-game package they launched last year.
Right now, Comcast SportsNet has no plans to roll out any live streams this season, though executives say that could change if they are able to find an economic model that works.
“At this point, I don’t think that we feel there’s a strong economic model for us to spend a lot of our resources on live game streaming,” said Eric Grilly, executive vice president and chief digital officer for the Comcast Sports Group.
Fox Sports Net, which holds the rights to 17 NBA teams, says it is talking about rolling out streaming service with several teams but has no specific plans to do so.
“We’re in discussions with distributors and teams about targeting certain markets for the upcoming season,” said Clark Pierce, FSN’s senior vice president of emerging technologies.
Currently only one team has concrete plans to stream games — the Portland Trail Blazers plan to make 16 of their games available via broadband.
“We’re still working with teams and RSNs to see if we can find a more compelling offering,” said Bill Koenig, NBA executive vice president of business and general counsel.
Comcast has been negotiating with the league about obtaining the rights to stream games to mobile devices, something Koenig said the league is thinking of allowing.
“It needs to be a Web and a mobile experience for us,” Grilly said. “At this point, we see a greater opportunity on the mobile.”
The problem is that RSNs have lost money on their streaming services so far. This year, RSNs that want to stream have to pay $3,300 per game to the NBA, up from last year’s fee of $3,000. These costs, along with production and bandwidth costs, have caused RSNs such as Comcast SportsNet to experiment with different business models.
Comcast is looking into streaming a package of games rather than every game. Last year, it tested a free model in Chicago and a pay model in Philadelphia. If it ends up launching local streaming this year, it wants to explore selling games in packages, rather than making every game available online. “You have to experiment because the market hasn’t evolved yet,” Grilly said.
The Blazers are rolling out a free service this season, with the games streamed to Blazers.com. Last season the Blazers, the first NBA team to stream games live, charged $3.99 per game, or $39 for the entire package.
They hope the move to a free model will boost streaming viewership that ranged between 800 and 1,000 last year. The team plans to sell sponsorship and advertising to support the product, though it does not yet have a presenting sponsor for its live streaming schedule that begins on Oct. 26, the team’s opening game against the Phoenix Suns.
The Blazers will stream their games on Blazers.com from the team’s over-the-air television broadcast schedule on KGW-NBC. The remaining Blazers games are carried on Comcast SportsNet Northwest, which has not been able to sign carriage deals with big distributors in Portland, including DirecTV, Dish Network and Charter.
The team wants to use live streaming as a way to increase exposure given the RSN’s carriage problems.
“We have the rights to 26 over-the-air games and have yet to work out an agreement with Comcast for streaming or for distribution on satellite,” said Blazers chief marketing officer Sarah Mensah.
Fox Sports’ action sports channel won’t be limited to surf, skate and snow programming anymore.
Fuel TV plans to add lifestyle programming and sports programming from motorsports and mixed martial arts to its lineup over the next month and a half. The moves are designed to expand the channel’s target demo from 12- to 24-year-old males to 12-35 and enlarge its audience.
The changes also come at an important time for the network, which is in about 31 million homes. One of its biggest affiliate deals, with DirecTV, ends next fall, sources said. Currently, distributors pay 14 cents per subscriber per month for Fuel, according to numbers from SNL Kagan. Most observers believe DirecTV will renew Fuel TV.
“We’re not abandoning action sports,” said Fuel TV general manager C.J. Olivares. “We’re just expanding beyond just action sports. We look at the channel as a sports and entertainment network that’s inspired by a new generation of sports.”
Wasserman Media Group principal Steve Astephen, whose agency represents some of action sports’ biggest stars, said that changing the mix of programming was the only way Fuel TV could expand, adding that he didn’t think the addition of sports like mixed martial arts would estrange existing viewers.
“They’ve got to have more variety of programming,” Astephen said. “They’ve got low-end production on there [now], and there’s no value there. This is what they need to do to grow. They’re capped unless they do it.”
As part of the change, the channel will roll out a new tag line: “Risk is the only rule.” The tag line will be part of a marketing campaign the channel will launch that Olivares says will be different from previous marketing campaigns the channel has conducted.
“Historically, we’re focused on brand,” he said. “That will continue to be a component, but we are de-emphasizing it as a talking point and focusing on tune-in.”
Last year, MTV was close to buying the channel. Talks fell apart at the 11th hour.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said the channel no longer is on the selling block.
“C.J. and I have been working very closely for the last few months on the new philosophy and approach to programming,” Hill said. “We have to broaden the network’s appeal without alienating the core viewer in order to open the network up to a wider audience.”
Fox executives also are making these moves in hopes of Fuel TV becoming a rated network.
“To survive and thrive in the competitive landscape of cable television, we need to move to a rated environment,” Olivares said.
Starting next week, ESPN’s hit shows “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn” will be produced in high definition. It will mark the most significant changes since both shows launched, “PTI” in 2001 and “ATH” a year later. Erik Rydholm, the only executive producer the two shows have ever known, sat down with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer John Ourand last week to discuss changes that will be coming when the shows go HD.
What will be different?
Rydholm: You’ll see slightly dressed up versions of what you’ve always seen. We don’t want to go out and have guys hovering or holograms or anything like that, but we thought it was an opportunity to clean up our act.
Give us specific changes.
Rydholm: Most everything is going to look unbelievably similar because we wanted it to. For “PTI,” the desk is going to be a little bit smaller. It’s going to look a little bit glossier. “Around the Horn” is going to be a little bit different because they built us a spaceship for a studio. The easiest comparisons we can make are either to a spaceship or an Apple store. It looks so unbelievably smooth and “2001”-ish. I’m kind of dubious about whether that actually impacts the bottom line and whether more people watch.
How much credence do you give viewer feedback?
Rydholm: From a marketing standpoint, when you listen to those who send you feedback, you’re only listening to a small percentage of your audience. But they’ve kept us honest from day one. While we have not progressed in visual ways — and this will be our first significant visual change — we have changed in how we address issues and which questions we’re asking. That’s the much harder job and the much more important job for any of these types of shows.
How has viewer feedback changed what you’ve done on the shows?
Rydholm: Poor Dan Le Batard. When he started at “Pardon the Interruption,” the vitriol toward him was substantial. After his first day, Dan asked, “What are people writing about me?” He started reading it, and it was just a torch after a flame. He started laughing and said, “They hate me. They all hate me.” We said, “Well, this is how we can take advantage of it. You are now the hate-able Dan Le Batard. Let’s acknowledge what’s already on viewers’ minds and move forward from there.”
Some of the “Around the Horn” panelists seem to be viewed negatively like that.
Rydholm: The perception of “Around the Horn” frustrates me a little bit. There’s almost never been an unkind word written about “PTI.” “Around the Horn” can’t catch a break. It’s become a punching bag for so many people. The way we have to look at these things is how well they rate and whether people seem to enjoy them. That show has been a phenomenon. If “Pardon the Interruption” wasn’t on the air, “Around the Horn” would be celebrated as an enormous ratings hit.
How do you deal with “Around the Horn” criticisms?
Rydholm: Yes, the guys can get loud. Yes, some of the humor can be juvenile. And yes, some people say these panelists might be a little bit smarter than they come off in the show. The fact is that the show is a fun show. The guys do make smart points. If the show weren’t a success, if people didn’t enjoy the show on some level, then we would feel the pressure to change the formula. But right now, I feel the formula has worked for the network and the viewers.
Two months after leaving NBC to set up his own production company, longtime TV producer David Neal has signed his first client.
David Neal Productions will executive produce the Professional Bull Riders’ Built Ford Tough Series, starting in January. Neal’s company is based in Los Angeles and has four employees. He hopes to eventually sign up to six clients, including live events and awards shows.
Neal developed an excellent reputation during his three-decade career at NBC, where he produced nine Olympics, four NBA Finals and two World Series.
As part of the new deal, Neal’s firm receives a straight contractual fee for producing the PBR programming, which is carried by Versus.
The programming was previously produced in-house by PBR.
“I have no doubt that I will significantly upgrade the presentation of PBR on TV,” Neal said. “There’s so much potential there. The surface has barely been scratched.”
Neal plans to take viewers closer to the action, moving cameras closer to ground level and placing microphones closer to the event. “I want viewers to feel the power of the bulls more,” Neal said. “I want to capture the raw emotion of the sport.”
Neal is represented by William Morris Endeavor, who cut the deal. Neal credits his longtime friendship with PBR Executive Chairman Jeffrey Pollack with helping to secure it.
“This shows why relationships in this business are so important,” he said. “Jeffrey and I have been friends for 10 years.”
Since moving to Los Angeles, Neal has helped produce the Primetime Emmys and he’s had several meetings with potential clients.
“The live TV experience I gained in sports is easily transferable,” Neal said. “I’ve had more meetings out here with nonsports entities than with sports ones.”
For the last two months, the head of Showtime cable network’s sports division spent many of his waking hours on the phone with five fight promoters, wrangling, massaging, cajoling and compromising, all in an attempt to bring direction to a rudderless sport.
That’s what Showtime set out to do when it announced its Super Six tournament last July: bring together six of the world’s top super middleweights from two continents, guarantee each of them a steady calendar of mid-six-figure fights, and deliver a resolution at the end.
While all three of those goals remain in play, the path has proved arduous, particularly of late. Two of the original six entrants have withdrawn because of injuries. Injuries also have forced the postponement of bouts, most recently the push back of a Carl Froch-Arthur Abraham fight set for Monaco on Oct. 2.
There also have been setbacks that are more difficult to comprehend. Negotiations for the current round of bouts, the final third of the group stage, have proved to be as arduous as those the Super Six set out to avoid, with promoters bickering about venues and fighters squabbling over purse shares.
As recently as a month ago, Showtime expected all three fights in this stage to have come off by the early days of October. Now, none of them will, despite the network’s attempts to push forward through the past six weeks.
“I’ve been on the phone from 6 a.m., driving in, to 10 o’clock at night at home, and I’ve been scratching my head the whole time,” said Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. “I don’t understand what the exercise was. I couldn’t for the life of me figure this one out.”
The current round promised three fights, all initially planned for September. One was canceled late in August, when Mikkel Kessler withdrew because of an eye injury. A second bit the dust early last week, when Froch reported he injured his back in training. The third, pitting 2004 U.S. Olympic teammates Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell, has been a headache since its inception, occupying a place on Showtime’s September calendar but never getting close to the start line.
Ward is promoted by Dan Goossen and managed by James Prince, a Houston-based rap label owner who now has a burgeoning fight stable. Dirrell is promoted by Gary Shaw and advised by Al Haymon, the most influential manager in boxing. While Shaw said he has been left out of the loop on talks, the others have been deadlocked since late June.
At the core initially was a dispute over venue. Ward has fought both his fights in his hometown of Oakland, where he earned purses of $250,000 and $437,500, according to documents filed with boxing regulators in California. Shaw said Dirrell would not fight in Ward’s hometown. Goossen has been reluctant to agree to put the fight elsewhere because other venues are not likely to generate as much site revenue.
While Hershman would not reveal the details of the contracts, he said that Showtime has multifight agreements with both promoters and both fighters, and that he expected those agreements would massage, if not preclude, this sort of holdup. Taken individually, the payouts might seem slightly below market for the top fighters, Hershman conceded. But because they were guaranteed multiple fights that otherwise might be hard to come by, the sacrifice made sense.
“It was all worked out in advance,” Hershman said. “That didn’t stop people from trying to disrupt things and take things in a different direction.”
Hershman said he hoped Kessler’s withdrawal last month might spur things between Ward and Dirrell, allowing the network to eliminate a group round and make their fight a semifinal, thus upping the pay for both fighters. He couldn’t get all the parties to agree to it. Early this month, he sent letters to Shaw and Goossen, reminding them that they were obligated to provide the fight and asking whether they were prepared to do so.
“It was a shot across the bow to say we’ve run out of patience,” Hershman said. “How much more are we going to talk about this?”
Now, Hershman said, Showtime plans to stick with the intended format, replacing Kessler with a new entrant. All three bouts should take place in November, with specific dates and venues to be determined. He said the tournament remains on schedule, with semis targeted for the first quarter of next year and a final later in the year.
Still, Showtime has been stung by the instability. The network had slotted Ward-Dirrell behind a stout lead-in, the TV premiere of Best Picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker.” Showtime planned to air Abraham-Froch a week later. Now, it’s trying to jam three fights into a busy fall sports calendar chock-full of competition, including the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito pay-per-view on HBO on Nov. 13, with a re-air set for Nov. 20.
“In retrospect, I think when the tournament was planned it was looking too far out for boxing,” Shaw said. “The idea is spectacular. But injuries do happen. Fighters get stale. Everybody knows what they signed up for, and it all should happen, but it’s boxing.
“You can’t figure out everything that will happen, no matter what.”