SBJ/March 7-13, 2011/Opinion

In case you missed it …

Don Garber said recently that ESPN’s “SportsCenter” should cover MLS more. Garber told FanHouse, “I believe we have earned a lot more than we’ve been getting from ESPN. We’re not saying, ‘Cover us because you’re a partner of ours.’ We’re saying, ‘Cover us because people care about Major League Soccer and want more information.’” He noted decisions on “SportsCenter” are made not by soccer proponent John Skipper (ESPN’s executive vice president of content) but “by editorial guys who are looking at video, the coordinating producer, who’s making a decision.”

Garber’s remarks reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone in NASCAR, who complained about the placement and amount of NASCAR coverage on “SportsCenter” and pointed to the editorial and production team behind the show. As he said, “They’re not fans of NASCAR. Even the people ESPN put in charge of the programming of the sport are not really NASCAR fans. Face it, they are stick-and-ball fans, and that hurts us.”

So some of these “editorial guys” and producers to whom these executives refer are possibly the most below-the-radar, influential people in sports television.

Watch closely how Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment continues to grow its business. I remember CEO Richard Peddie nearly 10 years ago saying the company “had run out of runway” in its traditional revenue streams of tickets and sponsorship. It has been forced to innovate, and one should note the early success of the company’s Real Sports Bar & Grill, which is adjacent to Air Canada Centre in Toronto and owned and operated by MLSE. It’s been filling the house since opening in June, touts the latest technology, and has drawn both young and old, men and women. MLSE is considering starting similar venues elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S., and while I’m not as interested in this as a trend in the themed restaurant business, which is littered with failure, I admire MLSE for improving a worn-out concept and developing a new and potentially lucrative revenue stream.

We write frequently on the “mature” facilities environment in the U.S., but here’s one area that teams are mining: spring training facilities. Look at what the MLB Diamondbacks and Rockies collaborated on in Arizona with their Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex, which has received raves from management, players and media. Look at the Orioles’ $31.2 million renovation of their spring home in Sarasota, Fla., where the ever-talented Janet Marie Smith breathed new life into a tired complex and has given it an identity and personality that fit the team. Next year, look for more innovation in Florida as the Red Sox open a mini-Fenway, followed in 2013 or ’14 by the Cubs’ $85 million project in Mesa, Ariz., with a Wrigleyville West development to follow. You can see where the market is heading in terms of improving the fan experience and generating new revenue.

Sports continues to have a good story to tell, especially when you look at some of its competitors for hearts, minds and eyeballs. Exhibit A: The Oscars, in a bid to jump-start interest among younger demos, went with youthful hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco. It didn’t juice viewership, as the Oscars were down 9 percent from last year. One of the biggest TV events of the year, the Academy Awards averaged 37.9 million viewers, a solid number until you realize that nearly 75 million more viewers watched Super Bowl XLV, which averaged 111 million viewers. Exhibit B: We know the challenges surrounding the live-event business, and Live Nation reported some tough numbers last week: Ticket sales to concerts were off 10 percent, while arts and theater sales were down 12 percent. On the flip side, sports ticket sales were down only 1 percent.

Abraham Madkour is executive editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

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