SBJ/20101115/This Week's Issue

Turner, CBS find their rhythm as NCAA sales teammates

The first time Turner Sports and CBS jointly called on a client, they fielded as many questions about how and why they’re working together as they did about the NCAA inventory they were selling.

Two networks representing one property in a collaborative sales effort was admittedly a little uncomfortable at first.

“Going into the marketplace together, there was the potential to have some hiccups along the way,” said Chris Simko, CBS Sports’ senior vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s the most unique thing that’s gone on at CBS or any major media company I’ve come in contact with. … If there is a challenge, it’s the perception about ‘What’s Turner’s role? What’s CBS’s role? Which one do I speak with?’

“People just can’t believe that two organizations can come together and work this closely in such a short amount of time. We’ve just had to get everyone familiar and comfortable with the process.”

The joint sales effort between Turner and CBS came about when the networks teamed up to win the NCAA’s media and marketing rights last spring with a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal.


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Turner and CBS are selling NCAA tourney game
slots as well as creating new programming.

The coupled effort made sense from a programming and business perspective. Turner’s presence mitigated the huge financial pressure that CBS felt to deliver on annual rights fees that average $771 million, and Turner’s array of networks — TBS, TNT, truTV — would enable national distribution for every game of the men’s basketball tournament, rather than the regional approach CBS used in the early rounds.

The higher-ups — Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, and David Levy, president of Turner Sports — agreed that their sales teams would hit the streets together, selling the TV and digital advertising inventory, while also managing and selling the corporate partner program, a veritable one-stop shop for all things NCAA.

IMG, which had been working with CBS as a sales agent on the corporate partner program, maintains a significant role in the sales process in the new arrangement.

Jeremy Carey, director and media buyer at Optimum Sports, said Turner and CBS seem to be progressing past the early challenges about who was responsible for what.

“It’s not easy to combine sales forces,” Carey said. “There was a little bit of confusion to begin with, but these guys have teams in place to make sure everything runs smoothly and they’re pairing up account executives to make sure they’re all on the same page. You can tell they’ve put a good amount of work into it.”

The networks left it to Simko and Will Funk, Turner’s senior vice president of NCAA partnerships and branded programming, to figure out the details of how they would sell together. Simko and Funk, who had never met before, now talk daily.

“We have to communicate on everything that we’re doing when we’re talking to clients, and so far it’s been smooth sailing,” Funk said. “I think we’ve found an operating rhythm between the two companies.”

They decide who takes the lead on certain calls by deciding who has the better contacts. Turner was in a similar situation in the mid-2000s when it shared NASCAR advertising inventory with the sales staff at NBC, but those races didn’t run at the same time like the basketball games will and the two sales staffs weren’t joined at the hip as closely as Turner and CBS are.

“The point person on a call depends on who has more in-depth knowledge of the client,” Funk said. “There are relationships that we already have with clients, and CBS has its own set of relationships. In some cases, we go jointly to meet with clients.”

Sales executives are naturally competitive and each one wants to close the deal, but Turner and CBS have been adamant that agencies won’t be able to “divide and conquer,” Simko said, when it comes to negotiating the deals.

“There has to be a continuous flow of dialogue between and among the NCAA, Turner and CBS,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s executive vice president, chief of the basketball tournament and chief negotiator on the new media contract. “There’s certainly a premium on communication, flexibility and trust, and believe me, there were many long conversations so that the NCAA could understand the sales process.”

Turner and CBS executives are already on the street selling in-game units across all of their channels, but they’re also working to create additional inventory through NCAA tournament shoulder programming, which will run before and after the games that day.

In the past, CBS’s one-network approach limited how much additional programming it could offer. Right after the game, the network had to go to the nightly news, or it had to go to its prime-time lineup.

Turner’s channels don’t face those same limitations and new NCAA tournament programming will feature more highlights, analysis and postgame press conferences.

“CBS was a little more constricted in the past than we’ll be,” Funk said. “With all of the networks we’re now employing, we’ll have the flexibility to create ancillary opportunities, pregame, postgame and bridge shows between the games. That’s a big selling point. It’s more opportunities to create customized, branded programming for a partner, both on linear TV and digitally.”

Funk said he expects Turner’s digital platforms to play a significant role, beyond the traffic the NCAA already enjoys with the popular “March Madness on Demand” on Turner-run NCAA.com and CBSSports.com. Turner manages a portfolio of sites, including SI.com, that offer complements to the advertising opportunities on TV.

Funk and Simko said they anticipate the Monday after Selection Sunday to have a more prominent place in the run-up to the start of the tournament.

“That Monday is going to be a big day for digital business because now that’s the only day you’ve got to fill out your bracket,” Funk said. “We’re looking to brand that as something like a ‘national bracket day’ to take advantage of a frenzy of activity that day.”

The tournament will begin on a Tuesday with two games and two more on that Wednesday — a collection of games dubbed the “First Four” — instead of the single play-in game, which will create another platform within the tournament to sell against.

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.

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