SBJ/August 22-28, 2011/Media

How NBC Sports Network can chip away at ESPN’s dominance

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John Ourand
I give the same answer every time someone asks whether any network will ever truly compete with ESPN: Nobody will be able to match the breadth and depth of ESPN for a long time.

That’s because ESPN already created its own competitors. ESPN2 could be considered ESPN’s biggest rival. Or ESPNews or ESPNU. Or any of its broadband or mobile sites.

Even with all the money Comcast and NBC has lining their pockets, it’s virtually impossible for a single channel like Versus to become a full-fledged competitor with ESPN. Versus is in 76 million homes; ESPN is in 100 million. Cable operators pay ESPN about $4.69 per subscriber per month, according to SNL Financial; they pay Versus about 30 cents.

But Versus can start to chip away at ESPN’s dominance in the sports media world, and some recent moves by the network, which will be rebranded NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2, offer a glimpse at how the all-sports network plans to compete in the sports media marketplace: through a combination of production and promotion, plus a commitment to have all of its NBC Sports resources — NBC, NBC Sports Network, Golf Channel, Comcast SportsNet — work well together.

GETTY IMAGES
Mark Lazarus points to extending the NBC Sports brand on multiple platforms.
“We believe that with a national broadcast platform, two national cable platforms, regional networks and growing digital platforms, we have an amazing collection of sports assets that allow us to reach consumers in every part of their passionate sports lives,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, stated in an email. “The new NBC Sports Network will incorporate the rich legacy of NBC Sports as we continue to build out that brand on every platform.”

The overall success of sports networks is dependent on live sports, and that is where NBC Sports Network struggles. Live sports bring higher ratings. With a schedule that’s heavy on the NHL and, starting next year, MLS, NBC Sports Network has a good amount of live sports. The problem is that these sports haven’t proved they can deliver big ratings.

NBC wants to build those ratings, of course. But NBC’s plan, which includes pregame and postgame shows around all NHL and MLS games, seems to be to try and re-create NBC Sports Network as a high-quality network that will make other leagues, like the NFL or MLB, take notice and become comfortable about putting their games on it.

A higher-quality NBC Sports Network will better position NBC to go after big-ticket sports. NBC executives have made no secret of their desire to bring more popular games to the network. They are expected to engage the NFL on a cable package of eight live games starting next season, and it’s likely that the channel’s executives will show an interest in picking up an MLB package when those rights come due after the 2013 season.

But first things first — and that’s proving that NBC Sports Network can produce top-quality programming. Executives have been busy putting their mark on the network as a way to attract those sports.

The channel NBC Sports is operating today is virtually unrecognizable to the one that it took over six months ago as part of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC. Gone are shows produced on a shoestring that were easy to lampoon on the old Versus. NBC almost immediately eliminated series like “The T.Ocho Show,” “Whacked Out Sports” and “Sports Soup.”

“These are shows that we didn’t think NBC Sports would ever be doing,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and Versus. “We’ve tried to eliminate all off-brand shows like that.”

Instead, NBC Sports Network is pursuing higher-quality shows. Today, it’s announcing a partnership with NFL Films on a Thursday night series called “NFL Turning Point.” The hourlong show essentially will be used to market the Sunday night game on NBC. It will debut Sept. 15, ahead of NBC’s Sept. 18 Eagles-Falcons game, and will feature in-depth footage of the Sunday night teams’ previous games. The footage will focus on plays deemed the “turning points” of the previous game.

Much of the reason for producing a show like this, of course, is to help market NBC’s important “Sunday Night Football” franchise. It’s also, obviously, a way to deepen a relationship with the NFL in the months before the league awards a new TV package of eight live games.

NBC is depending on the quality of those relationships — and that kind of promotion — to help it convince rights holders to move to Versus.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber referenced NBC’s promotion as a main reason why he was comfortable about moving MLS games from Fox Soccer to NBC and the rebranded NBC Sports Network.

“A key point for us is that Jon Miller and NBC have a tremendous reputation for promoting their properties,” Garber said. “I’ve watched with envy what they’ve done for the NHL. We hope NBC can do for soccer what they’ve been able to do for hockey.”

MLS has drawn anemic viewership figures at the league’s other network partners. After 12 telecasts this year, ESPN and ESPN2 are averaging a combined 308,000 viewers for MLS games; Fox Soccer is averaging 77,000 after 15 telecasts. Those aren’t the types of numbers that drive a rebranded network’s growth.

But NBC is looking at the big picture.

“We’ll be strategic about how we program the games,” Miller said, pointing to the planned pregame and postgame shows for every MLS game as evidence of the care and attention NBC devotes to its partners. “We will promote MLS in our other programming, including the Olympics, to try and bring other viewers into the sport.”

The message, particularly to the NFL and MLB, is clear: Promotion and production is how NBC believes it sets itself apart from its competitors.

“We’ve done an awful lot in a short period of time,” Miller said. “We want NBC Sports Network to be stickier.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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