SBJ/September 19-25, 2011/Media

As NBC Sports Group is ramping up, ESPN looks to grow

John Ourand
A recent column about how NBC Sports Network is looking to expand its programming generated a number of comments about whether the new NBC Sports Group could compete with ESPN.

With 24-hour channels like Versus (to be renamed NBC Sports Network in January) and Golf Channel, NBC Sports Group has started taking steps to chip away at ESPN’s sports media dominance. It launched a block of studio programming on Versus every weeknight, starting at 6 p.m. ET, and NBC aggressively has sought to pick up sports rights, outbidding ESPN for the Olympics and NHL rights.

It’s clear that ESPN executives recognize these competitive threats and are taking steps to address them. One of the challenges NBC faces as it tries to chip away at ESPN is that ESPN is not sitting still and is looking to expand all of its platforms.

“We’re going to try and get in front of the heat,” said ESPN’s executive vice president of content, John Skipper. “I hope I can reverse the heat.”

The network’s recent NFL deal illustrates what Skipper means. The $1.9 billion per season deal has as much to do with highlight rights as it does with live games. In fact, during an interview discussing the new deal, Skipper never mentioned the live “Monday Night Football” games or the eight consecutive Pro Bowl games ESPN will carry.

But Skipper talked at length about the new, and expanded, studio shows that ESPN and ESPN2 already have launched as a result of the NFL deal. ESPN expects to produce 500 new hours of studio time each year that will be focused on highly rated NFL programming.

It hardly seemed like a coincidence that ESPN launched its new shows the same week that Versus started its “NBC SportsTalk” series.

“My goal is that if they announce five new hours a week, I’m going to announce 10 new hours a week,” Skipper said. “We will compete vigorously for the eyeballs that we currently have right now.”

That was the strategy ESPN used earlier this month after Versus launched five hours per week of “NBC SportsTalk,” plus a sports business studio show. Last week, Versus also launched “NFL Turning Point,” a co-production between NFL Films and NBC Sports Group.

ESPN responded with up to four new studio shows that have launched so far. Most of the shows were created through the highlights package that was part of ESPN’s NFL deal. That package allowed ESPN to build up the studio programming schedule across ESPN and ESPN2, something Skipper said was a priority.

ESPN2 launched “NFL 32,” hosted by Suzy Kolber and Chris Mortensen, on weekday afternoons, and “NFL Kickoff” on Fridays. The added hours of NFL programming on ESPN also will see ESPN2 pick up Jim Rome’s show. ESPN2 launched two other shows, as well: “Numbers Never Lie” and “Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable.”

“I’ve got the four best products for sports news and information on sports television,” Skipper said, referring to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPNU. “We’ve been on a mission to improve the quality of our live news and information on all of our networks.”

But while one may wonder whether an over-reliance on NFL programming might dilute the impact of those shows, executives across the networks aren’t concerned. They all feel that the glut of new NFL programming will not hurt ratings, citing the popularity of live NFL games.

NFL shoulder programming also rates well. For example, the regular season’s first “NFL Countdown” attracted 2.414 million viewers Sunday morning, good enough to place in the top 200 for all cable shows last week. It was ESPN’s fourth most watched show of the week, out-rating such mainstays as “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn.”

“NFL programming rates great,” Skipper said. “When we do ‘NFL 32’ in the 6 to 7 p.m. slot on ESPN2, we will see a dramatic uptick in ratings from what we had there before. It’s a pretty insatiable demand for quality NFL product. Fans really, really care.”

The highlights package expands beyond studio programming. It will allow ESPN to use more NFL footage to create documentaries for its “30 for 30” series.

“We were very pleased that people seem to understand that the deal we do is dramatically different from the deal somebody else does because of all of our platforms, all of the networks and the amount of NFL product we have,” Skipper said. “The 17 games are the showcase, but the day-to-day stuff is just as important to us.”

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

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