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ESPN is opening its digital content to outside developers, with the aim of using new online and mobile products created by third parties to help expand its already substantial reach.
The ESPN Developer Center has been in development for nearly a year.
ESPN in the past has partnered with third parties in traditional business development deals to place its content beyond its own platforms. But the new effort will create a more public and expansive structure in which a far greater number of outside entities will have access to ESPN content.
“This has the potential to be very additive to ESPN’s business,” said Dave Greeley, managing director for media consultancy and research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “Every platform matters, and what they’re doing here further recognizes that.”
Several of ESPN’s primary digital competitors, including Yahoo! and CBS, have similar developer programs, particularly for fantasy sports. But given the depth and breadth of ESPN’s digital content, this latest initiative holds the potential for even greater scale.
“This is a way to take business development to the next level,” said Jason Guenther, vice president of ESPN digital media technology. “This is literally about unlocking our content and making barriers to entry for development and innovation as low as possible.”
The ESPN Developer Center has been in development for nearly a year, and several partners of the company are among the first to experiment with the APIs. The early adopters include popular location-based social media platform Foursquare, and Flipboard and Pulse, two developers of news-reading applications that have won acclaim for helping make newsfeeds and websites more graphically oriented and interactive.
“This allows us to slice and dice their content in some really interesting ways,” said Akshay Kothari, Pulse chief executive and co-founder. “Being where content is consumed, we think, is a very good thing for publishers, and ESPN is now one of the biggest publishers in our platform.”
Financial terms of the ESPN Developer Center were not disclosed, and will likely vary depending on the type and scope of the products created by developers.
ESPN executives said the initiative will also complement ESPN’s internal product development efforts.
“We see this as a great means to connect with developers and have access to some of the new and exciting things being created out there,” Guenther said. “This will definitely keep us on our toes.”
Fox Sports Network has filled two of the three openings it had at its regional sports networks, promoting Brian Hogan to lead its Arizona RSN.
Two months ago, FSN placed Henry Ford in charge of its soon-to-launch channel in San Diego.
Fox is planning to launch its San Diego RSN within the next two weeks, in time for the coming baseball season.
Earlier this year, Fox agreed to a 20-year deal with the Padres that averages out to $50 million per year. As part of that deal, the Padres would take a 20 percent equity interest in the channel.
The deal still hasn’t been signed, however, as it has been awaiting MLB approval.
Part of the holdup is due to Padres Chair John Moores’ plan to sell a majority stake in the team to Vice Chairman and CEO Jeff Moorad. That, too, is awaiting MLB approval.
In Arizona, Hogan is taking over for Mike Connelly, who recently moved to Fox’s corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. Hogan will report to Jeff Krolik, FSN’s executive vice president, who is based in Los Angeles. Hogan had been vice president and general sales manager for Fox Sports South and SportSouth for the past 13 years before making the move to Arizona.
FS Arizona is in 2.5 million homes and holds the rights to the MLB Diamondbacks and NBA Suns.
MLB Advanced Media is projecting a net revenue increase of 10 percent to 15 percent from its MLB.com At Bat mobile application this coming season, even with a shift to a universal platform structure.
The MLB.com At Bat app required a separate purchase for iPad (above) and iPhone till this season.
MLBAM is potentially sacrificing incremental revenue, since the $29.98 cost last year of having both a smartphone and tablet version of the app has been halved. Also, a fan this year subscribing to the premium level of the MLB.TV video subscription package will get the streaming games and all versions of the mobile app for a total outlay of $124.99, because MLB.com At Bat this year is a free add-on to the video package. Last year, a similar bundle cost $149.99.
But MLBAM executives said they plan to make up the revenue shortfall and then some through increased unit sales of the app.
“We’re going to learn a lot in this new structure,” said Bob Bowman, MLBAM president and chief executive. “In the beginning, the use cases were so different, but we’ve now made a change, and it’s what we should be doing.”
Also a key component in MLBAM’s plan to boost sales and revenue of MLB.com At Bat is a new pricing structure that includes for the first time a monthly subscription component. Instead of the $14.99 annual fee, users can elect to pay $2.99 a month for the full app features.
“Hopefully, this will encourage more people, more casual fans to try the product,” Bowman said.
MLBAM last year generated 3.3 million total downloads of MLB.com At Bat, about 1 million of which were the paid version and the rest a free version with fewer features. The company is projecting to boost the overall download number, as well as converting a sizable segment of the free audience over to some version of the paid side.
MLB.com At Bat since its 2008 debut has been among the most popular and critically acclaimed mobile apps in existence, even outside sports. The new version in just a matter of hours after its release last week rocketed to No. 2 on iTunes’ list of top-grossing apps.
In addition to MLB.com At Bat, MLBAM is preparing for the 2012 season a free, venue-specific app called At The Ballpark featuring check-ins, social media integration, seat upgrades, other venue-specific data and, for several teams, mobile food ordering. Many of these features were included previously in MLB.com At Bat and, to some degree, still will be. But breaking off the venue-related content into its own stand-alone product is designed to create a cleaner and less data-heavy user experience.
Extra Innings, the out-of-market game package that is the linear TV counterpart to MLB.TV, remains unlinked from MLB.TV or MLB.com At Bat. Several other major sports properties have bundled their TV and online out-of-market game packages into a combined subscription, but baseball says consumer demand to tie the two together hasn’t been high.
“We’re always looking to get customers better value. But on this issue, it’s not clear now what that path is,” Bowman said. “That path may become clearer in the next set of TV contracts.” MLB’s national TV contracts expire after the 2013 season.
Last April, it pledged to “intensify ... efforts to serve U.S. Hispanic sports fans.” For ESPN, that meant not only building up its Spanish sports channel, ESPN Deportes, but also making ESPN more accessible to Hispanics.
ESPN isn’t alone. Media companies are clamoring to get a piece of America’s fastest-growing demographic — particularly among the younger advertiser-friendly demos — like never before.
It has all the feel of a media gold rush.
At least three Spanish-language all-sports TV channels are planning to launch this year alone. Spanish broadcasting giant Univision is launching a Spanish-language sports channel this spring, Univision Deportes. Time Warner Cable is launching a Spanish-language RSN in Los Angeles this fall with rights from the Lakers and Galaxy. And the NFL is preparing to roll out a Spanish-language version of NFL RedZone this fall.
Those launches add to a landscape that already seems cluttered with Spanish-language sports channels, which includes Spanish language channels ESPN Deportes, Fox Deportes and Gol TV, not to mention the sports offerings from Univision and Telemundo.
Even if the U.S. Hispanic market continues to grow at its current rate, it’s hard to believe that all these channels will be able to survive. Hispanics account for more than 16 percent of the U.S. population and make up 22 percent of the 18-49 demographic.
Still, some executives in the market question whether there are enough viewers or ad dollars to support all the planned channels. Executives with ESPN and Univision told me that while the Hispanic market is as hot as any they’ve ever seen, they wouldn’t be surprised if some Spanish-language sports channels aren’t successful.
“There may be a natural selection process that may happen eventually,” said Lino Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes. “But I still think there’s a good opportunity to serve the Hispanic market.”
Some media industry veterans, like Park Lane managing director Carlos Silva, believe the Hispanic market is big enough in the United States to support these channels, especially if you look at the number of English-language all-sports channels that are vying for the same advertising and programming rights.
“It’s almost dizzying to think about how many English-speaking sports channels are operating,” said Silva, who is an executive-in-residence at the planned kids sports cable channel, The Whistle. “I don’t see any reason why all these Spanish-language sports channels can’t coexist.”
Though U.S. media companies have been trying to establish a foothold in the Hispanic marketplace for a long time, the current rush to enter the market suggests that the Hispanic TV audience has been underserved so far.
The Hispanic sports TV market is seeing the same wild increases as the overall sports TV market in the United States. This year’s Super Bowl, for example, set a Hispanic viewership record of 10.4 million. Just five years ago, the Super Bowl attracted just 6.2 million Hispanic viewers.
In describing the pending launch of a Spanish-language NFL RedZone, for example, the NFL’s senior vice president of media strategy and development, Hans Schroeder, said it “addresses a very big growing demographic here.”
How can networks stand out? Univision Deportes will focus on its programming lineup, which includes exclusive rights to the Mexican Primera División soccer league and FIFA rights through 2014.
“There’s no real magic to it,” said Sandy Brown, president of Univision Sports. “Programming is going to be the driver. We are going to use content to generate viewership. If we choose the right content, we’ll be the one standing at the end of the day.”
ESPN’s plan to woo the Hispanic audience has as much to do with ESPN as it does with ESPN Deportes, Garcia said. For example, in January, ESPN hired respected boxing writer Bernardo Osuna to host a studio show around “Friday Night Fights” as well as shows on ESPN Deportes.
“We are looking at making ESPN a more hospitable environment for English-speaking and bilingual Hispanics,” Garcia said.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.