How distribution could work A different kind of labor leader UFC plans new digital net The Sit-Down: Dave Brandon Coors Light passes Bud for the lead In MLB's licensing spotlight Fox will sell for L.A. Coliseum ATP adding Michelob Ultra to U.S. nets Powdr buys ‘World of Adventure Sports’ From the Executive Editor
SBJ/June 27 - July 3, 2011/MediaPrint All
Atlanta-based beRecruited.com has acquired sports social hub Fanvibe, extending a strong run of growth for both companies.
Vishwas Prabhakara, chief executive and co-founder of the San Francisco-based Fanvibe, will become the new chief executive of the combined entity and remain in California with his three employees. Jeff Cravens, who had been beRecruited’s president and oversaw a large expansion in site users and traffic in recent years, has been shifted out of the company’s day-to-day operations to a strategic adviser role.
Fanvibe, a 2011 nominee for Best in Sports Technology at the Sports Business Awards, has established an early leadership position in connecting fans around sporting events through social media. The company holds major partnerships with several sports entities, including the NBA, Turner Sports and Comcast SportsNet.
BeRecruited.com, meanwhile, links non-elite prospective college athletes with school programs and team coaches, not unlike how a professional networking site such as LinkedIn operates. The site has more than 1 million registered users and traction into more than 80 percent of U.S. high schools.
Fanvibe connects fans around events.
Prabhakara said Fanvibe, formed two years ago, wasn’t necessarily looking to sell so early in its life cycle, but found the beRecruited offer a “great opportunity.”
“With any startup, when you have an opportunity like this, you have to make an important decision to go it alone or team up,” he said. “In this case, we’re teaming up, but still get a lot of ‘go it alone’ opportunity given our leadership position in beRecruited.com and the ability to impact people’s lives.”
Financial terms for the deal, which emerged in part out of conversations through mutual contacts in the venture capital space, were not disclosed.
BeRecruited.com Chairman Ray Sozzi said that Fanvibe’s initial success in deploying mobile technology will be instrumental to the recruiting hub.
“We believe [Fanvibe’s] mobile applications and underlying technology will dramatically accelerate the growth of beRecruited.com’s mobile service,” Sozzi said.
Fanvibe’s competitors in the fast-emerging space of check-ins include the far larger Facebook, which last year acquired check-in service Hot Potato, and the New York-based GetGlue, which earlier this year expanded from its roots in entertainment with a sports push that includes partnerships with Fox Sports, the NHL, Turner Sports and the NFL Network, among others.
FanVision, the handheld mobile TV, has struck a deal with the PGA Tour to make its devices available at the Presidents Cup later this year and at a minimum of 20 tour events next year.
“We’re making a big push in golf,” said Michael Weisman, FanVision’s executive producer and a former Fox and NBC Sports executive. “I can’t think of a better application for FanVision than golf.”
The handheld units will rent for $25 a day at the golf courses.
Those viewers took FanVision onto the golf course and had access to 10 channels, including the NBC and ESPN broadcast feeds, real-time leaderboard and stats, course maps, the ESPN Radio broadcast and Twitter feeds that mentioned the U.S. Open.
AmEx paid a fee to FanVision to rent the devices and rebranded them CourseCast TV.
FanVision, formerly Kangaroo TV before it was acquired by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, has a particular appeal in golf, its executives said, because fans can’t take in all of the action if they’re on the course.
“FanVision gives you the TV broadcast as well as other content that enhances the experience for the fans,” Weisman said.
The model at tour events will be different. Units will rent for $25 a day direct to fans at FanVision kiosks around the course. Through its association with the PGA Tour, FanVision also will have the ability to create package rentals for title sponsors, official marketing partners and hospitality buyers.
“As a tour partner, they help us get our service to the sponsors,” said Koken, a former Best Buy executive and longtime employee in the consumer electronics industry.
Denise Humphreys, the director of partnership management and new media for the PGA Tour, said they’re also in talks about incorporating the units into a couple of FedEx Cup playoff tournaments.
“There’s a new golf team in place there and certainly a larger focus on golf,” Humphreys said of FanVision.
Since AmEx also is a partner with the PGA of America, there’s a chance FanVision could have a presence at the PGA Championship, either through AmEx or on its own.
The deeper ties in golf also set up the potential for FanVision to work with content providers, such as Golf Channel, to beef up the offerings on the handheld units.
Fox has virtually sold out its ad inventory around the MLB All-Star Game at a 9 percent to 10 percent increase over last year’s rates, the network said.
Fox says its ad sales have been particularly strong in the auto, movie and telecom categories, while MLB’s official corporate partners also have bought heavy around the event.
The game traditionally has been among the top-rated broadcast programs of the summer. Last year’s game from Anaheim pulled in a 7.5 rating, the lowest ever for the event but still high enough to be one of the summer’s top sports draws on television.
Fox is not planning to make the game available in 3-D. Last year, Fox helped DirecTV produce the event in 3-D, but the two did not see enough demand to roll it out again.
Meanwhile, one of MLB’s other national partners, ESPN, is planning to make the State Farm Home Run Derby available in 3-D, as well as broadband and mobile
ESPN also is approaching sellout levels for the Home Run Derby, sources said.
The network’s telecasts this year have been marked by change, as it replaced longtime announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan before the season.
Similar talent changes are expected during its telecast of the Home Run Derby. Last year, Chris Berman manned the set with Joe Morgan and Bobby Valentine. Berman will be back this year, but Morgan and Valentine won’t.
ESPN hasn’t settled on who will replace them, but likely candidates include John Kruk and Nomar Garciaparra. An official announcement could come as early as this week.
This year, ESPN has started using its game talent in studio and its studio talent during game telecasts, a noticeable switch from last year.
“We feel like we have a very strong stable of talent that we weren’t utilizing as well last year,” said Mike Ryan, vice president of programming for ESPN.
“Baseball Tonight” will be on site with a set inside Chase Field for pregame and postgame shows around the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game. It also will cover the XM All-Star Futures Game and the Taco Bell All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game.
“This is a big event for us,” Ryan said. “This is one of the fun times of the year for us.”
Two months before its planned Aug. 26 launch, the University of Texas’ Longhorn Network is seeking its first distribution partner.
Industry sources say that ESPN, which is selling the channel to cable operators, wants 40 cents per subscriber per month for placement on expanded basic cable tiers in Texas and various markets in three adjoining states: Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
At 40 cents, Longhorn Network instantly would become one of the 30 or 40 highest priced cable channels. But the price is relatively low compared with regional sports networks, which frequently command more than $2. A similar channel, Big Ten Network, charged in-market distributors 70 cents for the right to carry its channel when it launched four years ago.
ESPN is far along in negotiations with several distributors, including two of the region’s biggest operators: Time Warner Cable and Verizon. Many don’t anticipate these carriage negotiations to be as bruising or public as Big Ten Network — which went a year after its launch without carriage on Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But distribution talks for new sports channels like Longhorn Network typically go down to the wire. Industry sources expect ESPN to be negotiating carriage deals with operators in Texas right up to the school’s season-opening Sept. 3 kickoff against Rice University.
“Talks are ongoing and productive,” said David Preschlack, ESPN’s executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing. “We’re in good shape for our launch.”
ESPN appears to have made launching the channel a priority. It has been in talks with Fox Sports Net, which holds the cable rights to Big 12 games, about picking up at least one more Texas football game for the Longhorn Network, sources said. The Longhorn Network now has the rights to just one football game per season. If a deal could be worked out to pick up a second game, Fox likely would seek rights to at least one Big 12 game for its broadcast channel. ESPN holds the Big 12’s broadcast rights.
The Longhorn Network made up a big part of ESPN’s presence at the cable industry’s annual convention earlier this month in Chicago. Basketball coach Rick Barnes and former football player Ricky Williams made appearances at ESPN’s booth and events. ESPN also has launched a website (GetLonghornNetwork.com) to whip up fan excitement as it tries to cut deals with Texas-area distributors. Outside of Texas and its surrounding states, ESPN is seeking sports tier carriage throughout the rest of the country. It has made several of its channels, including ESPN Classic, ESPN Goal Line and ESPN Buzzer Beater, available for sports tiers, which are premium programming packages that require subscribers to pay extra.
In January, ESPN formally announced a 20-year, $300 million deal to own and operate the channel. The contract was negotiated with Texas and the Longhorns’ multimedia rights holder, IMG College.
ESPN’s rights fees flow through the university and IMG College’s cut amounts to 17.5 percent.
IMG College owns the advertising inventory on the channel and has been on the streets since the spring trying to sell ad time. There have been times, industry sources say, when IMG College and ESPN sales teams have jointly approached prospective advertisers, but the ultimate responsibility to move the inventory rests with IMG College.
Scott Willingham, IMG College’s general manager for the Texas property, is leading the sales effort in the state. IMG also has a national sales team that it has been putting in place through the spring, and it will contribute as well.
The distribution duties fall on ESPN, which early on talked with Time Warner Cable about taking a 20 percent stake in the channel. Those talks cooled, though.
There are 7.75 million cable and satellite homes in Texas, according to MediaCensus 2011 from Media Business Corp. Time Warner is the state’s dominant cable operator, with close to 2 million subscribers.
Cable operators are not expecting to cut a deal for Longhorn Network easily. It is a first-of-its-kind network centered on one school, and distribution sources say they worry about a domino effect that could lead to other schools launching similar channels.
Cable operators reacted the same way to Big Ten Network, engaging in bruising carriage fights before launch.
ESPN expects to have leverage from the university’s wild popularity in the state. It will carry up to 200 live events, including at least one football game, up to a dozen men’s basketball games and Olympic sports. It is building a studio in Austin and plans to produce several studio shows, as well. A complete schedule will be revealed later this summer, but the network has announced a nightly news show called “Longhorn Extra” and a pregame show, “Texas GameDay.” It also plans academic-related programming and cultural/lifestyle shows about living in Texas.
“Our pitch taps into the passion of Texas Longhorn fans,” Preschlack said. “It’s not just football and basketball. It’s going to be for all things Texas.”
The NFL is negotiating with TV networks about a new early-season eight-game package that would start as soon as next season, according to several sources.
The potential Thursday night package could be worth as much as $700 million per year, the sources said. Such a windfall, providing a sudden increase in overall league revenue, could help soften the blow to the players from the emerging labor deal in which they are likely to receive a smaller percentage of revenue than they previously have received.
The new package would not affect NFL Network’s schedule of live games, as the league has decided to keep its channel’s eight-game Thursday night slate in the second half of the season intact.
The NFL declined to comment.
The league is shopping the early-season package to interested networks. Sources said the league currently has the rights to take enough games from CBS and Fox’s Sunday afternoon schedules to fill the new eight-game package and does not have to wait for those contracts to expire after the 2013 season.
The new revenue could offer solace to the league after it was rebuffed on its efforts to expand the schedule to 18 games from 16 games. The players have fought fiercely against that proposal, so in a way, the league is selling a new half-season this way.
Turner and Comcast have emerged as the most serious bidders for such a package. Comcast wants the package for Versus, while Turner, which carried a Sunday night NFL package on TNT from 1990-97, has privately craved returning NFL games to its schedule. Turner could put the package on TBS, TNT or truTV.
Fox is expected to kick the tires on a package for its FX network, but cable industry sources said cable operators have surcharge protection against FX, which would make it difficult for FX to afford such a package.
No other dark horses have emerged yet, according to sources. It’s believed that ESPN would at least take a look at the Thursday night package, as would Spike TV.
“There’s going to be another package because when this [labor] deal finally happens, somebody is going to have to pay for it,” said one network executive, who asked not to be identified. “Part of it is going to be paid by a new NFL package.”
Thursday night games generally are not popular with coaches and players, and they usually don’t draw the audience that NFL games bring in other time slots. But the league views Thursday night as the best night to roll out a new package.
ESPN and the NFL have agreed to the broad terms of an extension for “Monday Night Football” that would run through 2022-23. The cost there would average out to $1.8 billion per year.
That deal, first reported in January, still hasn’t been signed, but ESPN sources said the delay is because of the NFL labor situation, not because of haggling over deal terms.
The NFL has been making progress in labor talks with the players, and there is hope a final deal could be signed next month.
In 2004, the NFL rejected an offer from Versus that would have paid an average of $450 million per year for an eight-game schedule. The deal also would have given the NFL an equity interest in Comcast’s all-sports channel, then called OLN, sources said.
At the time, the NFL opted to put the package on its own network.
Toronto-based Polar Mobile has signed a pair of three-year deals with the MLB Players Association and NFL Players to develop a series of mobile products for the organizations.
In the agreements, Polar will create an array of applications for the iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Nokia platforms. Specific applications being developed include player-specific Twitter aggregations, player trackers, behind-the-scenes video and photo games.
The pacts extend a run of new sports-related business for the company that in recent months has included deals with the NHL Players’ Association, The Hockey News and Pro Football Weekly.
“We’re definitely seeing a great deal of traction coming our way,” said Kunal Gupta, Polar Mobile chief executive. “Sports is definitely an area where we’re seeing a great deal of interest and consumption.”
The MLBPA and NFL Players are each aiming to expand their digital product sales after many years of operating primarily around traditional hard and soft goods such as apparel and collectibles. The Polar-NFL Players work will proceed regardless of the status this summer of labor talks between the league and the NFL Players Association.
“This is a natural progression for us,” said Keith Gordon, NFL Players president. “The digital arena is an arena prime for us where we can showcase our players.”
NBC executives have not settled on the name they will call Versus, but sources say their goal is to rebrand the channel on-screen by Jan. 1.
A new name, which almost certainly will carry the NBC Sports brand, will be announced in late summer or early fall. The new name should take effect by the start of the year.
The rebranding will not affect NBC Cable Group’s regional sports networks — at least not initially. Former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said he wanted to rename the Comcast SportsNet regional sports networks with the NBC Sports name. But sources said Comcast’s brass likes keeping the Comcast brand on the RSNs, which are in markets where Comcast runs cable systems, and that a final decision has not been made on whether the RSNs will be renamed.
Golf Channel also will keep its name, though there has been discussion of incorporating the NBC Sports brand into its title.
When Ebersol left NBCUniversal last month, some believed interest in renaming Versus would wane. Earlier this month, Comcast’s Brian Roberts was noncommittal about a name change, telling CNBC the company was looking at it.
But NBC’s commitment to rename Versus was underscored in Switzerland during its Olympics presentation June 7. The NBC delegation told the International Olympic Committee that it planned to show programming on its 24-hour sports channel, which it called NBC Sports Cable. Executives showed a logo for the channel that featured the NBC Sports logo with cable written underneath.
NBC Sports Cable was just a placeholder, sources said.
NBC Sports marketing executive John Miller is in charge of the rebranding effort. The rebranding effort has been delayed because NBCUniversal’s new leadership wanted to firm up some rights before relaunching the brand, according to sources. Having closed renewals with the NHL and Olympics in the past two months, it is now in position to move forward.
NBC is expected to time any announcement to its signature sports properties. An announcement late this summer could be tied to one-year-out promotions for the 2012 Olympics. A fall announcement could be tied to the start of the NHL season.
If NBC waits until January, it could roll out the new brand around the NHL’s Winter Classic or during the NFL playoffs, building up to its 2012 Super Bowl coverage.
Comcast renamed the channel Versus in fall 2006. It wanted to move away from OLN, previously Outdoor Life Network, and its emphasis on outdoors programming.
Since Comcast’s acquisition of NBC took effect in January, NBC Sports has been sharing resources across its channels. It has used NBC Sports talent on Versus’ hockey telecasts, and vice versa. NBC’s golf coverage has been accompanied by an on-screen logo touting “Golf Channel on NBC.”
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
Versus is expanding its online coverage of the 2011 Tour de France through an integration with NBCSports.com and new applications for the iPad and Android mobile platforms.
“Tour de France All Access” will offer live coverage including maps and stats.
The live coverage also takes on the new moniker of “Tour de France All Access” to match up with the “All Access” brand used for NBC’s coverage of “Sunday Night Football,” the NHL playoffs and other events. Like last year, Versus will feature a detailed Race Tracker for the Tour de France featuring interactive race maps, social media integration, statistics, highlights and other content.
Live race video, as it did last year, is behind a pay wall. An online subscription featuring the live video, real-time race GPS tracking and other features costs $29.95, as it did last year, with daily passes priced at $4.95. Mobile versions for the iPhone, Android and iPad platforms, as in 2010, are $14.99 each.
This year’s event won’t have seven-time champ Lance Armstrong, who returned in 2009 and 2010 after a three-year retirement but has since retired again. But NBC Sports officials said the move to NBCSports.com and the introduction of applications for the iPad and Android platforms should boost sales and consumption of the coverage. Versus last year sold 26,000 online subscriptions for the Tour de France and 15,000 iPhone applications.
“We’re definitely hoping on some significant audience lift,” said Tom Seeley, NBCSports.com coordinating producer. “It was a great product before that we’re bringing back on a much bigger platform now. The NBCSports.com site is a much more heavily trafficked, 12-month-a-year site [compared with Versus.com]. And having these two new mobile platforms and getting on the tablet is also a huge boost. It’s very exciting to get our hands on properties like this.”