SBJ/April 2-8, 2012/MediaPrint All
Fox Sports has tapped John Entz to be the fifth executive producer in the network’s 18-year history.
In his role, Entz will oversee studio and event productions for all of Fox Sports’ networks, including the broadcast channel, the regional sports networks, Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, Fuel and Fox Deportes. Entz also will oversee digital programming on FoxSports.com.
“John is a true leader,” Shanks said. “He is one of the most innovative and creative producers in our business.”
Fox hired Entz five months ago to be senior vice president of production for Fox Sports Media Group. Sources said he was looking into Fox’s plans to launch a new national sports channel, which he would have been in line to run, but his new role has him taking over as executive producer from Doug Sellars, who died unexpectedly Dec. 30.
Entz had worked at Fox from 1996 to 2008, when he left to help launch MLB Network. He was senior vice president of production for the league-owned network.
A SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily Forty Under 40 award winner, Entz takes over as executive producer as the network embarks on a new MLB season. Its rights deal with MLB ends after the 2013 season.
The four other executives who have held the executive producer title during Fox Sports’ 18 years are Chairman David Hill, Vice Chairman Ed Goren, Shanks and the late Sellars.
Fox Sports executives may have been publicly downplaying reports that it is looking to launch a competitor to ESPN, but the idea has gained a lot of momentum in recent months as Fox has dangled the possibility during rights negotiations with some of the country’s biggest sports properties.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill is overseeing the current project.
Executives close to the talks said plans to switch Fox’s motorsports channel Speed into an all-sports channel are still in their infancy and not set in stone. There’s a good chance that nothing happens and no switch is made.
But a new multisport Speed also has been part of early discussions Fox has had with MLB. Sources said MLB executives have told Fox that it needs to establish a better cable sports presence to help it compete with ESPN’s cable channels and NBC Sports Network for rights. Fox’s MLB deal is up after the 2013 season.
Other broadcasters have made similar moves. In addition to ESPN, which produces sports content on ABC, NBC owns the multisport NBC Sports Network and CBS owns the multisport CBS Sports Network. Fox Sports does not own a national multisport cable network.
The earliest Fox would switch Speed into an all-sports network is 2014, sources say. That’s when the network’s rights deal with NASCAR ends, potentially freeing up space on the program schedule. That’s also the year when Fox has rights to broadcast the Super Bowl, and Fox could look to build off the promotion around the game for the channel launch. NBC had a similar strategy this year when it relaunched Versus as NBC Sports Network a month before the broadcast network carried this year’s Super Bowl.
Sources said Fox has talked about using FX as a “bridge” to house sports rights, like Pac-12 and Big 12 games, until it can get a full-time multisport network up and running.
Fox has not submitted formal proposals to cable or satellite operators yet. But several distributors told SportsBusiness Journal that Fox has initiated informal talks about making such a switch. That aspect presents one of the key obstacles to any launch, as many of Speed’s cable affiliate contracts do not allow Fox to switch Speed away from a pure motorsports channel, sources said. So Fox will have to gain cable and satellite buy-in to make such a switch. Such a move would represent another piece in a larger negotiation for all of Fox’s networks.
NASCAR stands to lose more than anyone if Fox converts Speed to a multisport network. Speed currently broadcasts NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races and shows an average of 25 hours a week of NASCAR shoulder programming. That’s significantly more than the approximately five hours ESPN offers with its “NASCAR Now” and pre-race programs.
Fox raised the possibility of an all-sports network in its general conversations with NASCAR over the past year. The last time the two discussed the possibility was approximately one month ago when Fox told NASCAR it was considering turning Speed into an all-sports channel and converting Fuel TV into a motorsports channel. That move alone would put NASCAR programming in 45 million fewer homes. Another sign of potential changes occurred late last year when the channel’s longtime president, Hunter Nickell, surprisingly resigned. Fox’s Scott Ackerson was named interim president Jan. 1.
It’s unclear how NASCAR would respond to a potential switch of Speed into an all-sports network. NASCAR Media Group opened a $43 million facility in downtown Charlotte in 2010. The facility has four floors of studio and production space and an extensive digital archive that would allow NASCAR to start its own network if it chose to do so. The assumption is that it wouldn’t make that decision until after its current broadcast agreements end in 2014.
NASCAR has held talks with Fox in the past about becoming a stakeholder in Speed and turning it into a joint-venture project. Those conversations have been ongoing for several years.
The network has been exploring the idea since at least 2009 when Chase Carey was hired as News Corp.’s president, COO and deputy chairman.
The plan gained steam last year, as Fox Sports negotiated deals with the Big 12, FIFA, Pac-12 and UFC.
At first, Fox looked into the possibility of flipping Fuel TV or Fox Soccer. But those larger, more-established properties did not want to entrust their rights to a small niche channel like Fuel TV, which is in 37 million homes, or Fox Soccer, which is in 41 million.
They’d be more willing to commit to Fox’s motorsports channel, Speed, which is in 82 million homes.
Such a switch makes sense for Fox. The network’s NASCAR deal ends in 2014. The channel already has an infrastructure and better distribution than NBC Sports Network or CBS Sports Network, which should help convince rights holders to put their content on the channel.
The cost of launching such a channel is unclear.
Major League Baseball is planning to take television rights to its new wild card playoff games to the open market this week, according to several sources.
An exclusive negotiating window with Turner Sports was scheduled to end last Saturday without a deal, those sources said. That will enable the league to engage ESPN and Fox Sports in negotiations for the one-game wild card playoff in each league.
Sources also say that the league is seriously considering carrying the games on its own MLB Network.
At last month’s World Congress of Sports, MLB’s executive vice president of business, Tim Brosnan, spoke of the need to increase MLB Network’s distribution to 90 million homes. It’s now in 68 million homes, making it the most widely distributed league-owned cable channel.
On the event’s opening panel, Brosnan said the league will be looking to place “important” games on the channel to persuade cable operators to give it better carriage. When asked whether he was referring to playoff games, Brosnan said, “I didn’t say that.” But the wild card games could be the types of “important” games to which Brosnan was referring.
Early last month, MLB announced a playoff expansion to include two wild card teams from each league. The teams will play a one-game elimination game to advance to the Division Series. The wild card games are scheduled for Oct. 5, two days after the conclusion of the regular season. One set of Division Series starts Oct. 6; the other will start the following day, Oct. 7.
It’s not known what type of rights fee MLB can get from these added games. The league wants to see whether competition from the open market can push up the price for what should be an appealing and highly rated one-game playoff.
Originally, Turner believed it had the contractual right to carry the games. TBS has carried play-in games in the past and holds the rights to carry all of the divisional series.
But the two sides could not work out a deal for the new games during their exclusive negotiating window. Sources said the two sides could not agree on how much these games were worth.
This will allow MLB to test the open market. Neither ESPN nor Fox has had formal talks for the games, and it’s difficult to gauge their interest. Conceivably, the package would be open to others, like NBC Sports Network. But sources said it was unlikely that a non-MLB TV partner would wind up with the games.
Several sources consider MLB Network or TBS the likely landing spot; there is a possibility that they could split the package and each carry a game.
The package of wild card games covers this season and next. MLB will start negotiation on its overall media rights package this season. Its deals with ESPN, Fox and Turner expire at the end of next season.
MLB Advanced Media this week will introduce additions to its Gameday live game tracker, including a new element of automated color commentary.
Using the past four seasons of accumulated, detailed game data, the new Scout feature on Gameday will identify statistical trends and tendencies, such as a pitcher’s historic effectiveness when he fails to reach certain pitch speeds, and display them in real time. The Scout element will be introduced this week with the online version of Gameday, with an expansion to mobile platforms planned for later this season.
Gameday’s interactive additions are part of a larger industry trend toward “gamification.”
In addition, Gameday will this season introduce a series of casual games and contests, such as virtual mascot races and baseball-themed versions of three-card monte frequently seen on ballpark scoreboards. Participation and success in those games, usually occurring during inning breaks and pitching changes, will generate rewards and prizes as part of a fan loyalty program being developed in concert with Seattle-based social loyalty firm BigDoor Inc.
The effort is also part of a larger industry trend toward “gamification,” a tech buzzword describing the introduction of gaming elements and gaming mechanics into other facets of digital media and commerce.
“One of the ideas we’re pursuing is to bring a bit more of the ballpark, in-venue experience into Gameday,” said Dinn Mann, MLBAM executive vice president of content. “But you put everything together, and it’s one of the biggest leaps forward we’ve ever had for Gameday.”
The Gameday game tracking is one of the most highly trafficked sections of MLB.com, generating more than 362 million session launches during 2011, up 17 percent from 2010, and a site record of more than 4 million alone on Sept. 28, the frenetic final day of the regular season.
The enhancements also arrive with an expanded advertising platform for Gameday, with sponsors now able to buy ad positions adjacent to announcements of specific plays. Initial sponsors for the 2012 season include EMC, Lowe’s and Pepsi. MLBAM did not provide numbers on how much additional revenue those opportunities might provide.
MLBAM today is also set to introduce the 2012 version of “Beat the Streak,” its popular, 11-year-old fantasy game in which users select an MLB player each day to get a hit, with a goal of beating Joe DiMaggio’s record consecutive hit streak of 56 games. Despite more than 50 million initiated streaks during the life of the game, no one has surpassed DiMaggio and attained a top prize that rose last year to $5.6 million.
The updated version of the game will allow users to select a second player each day, conceivably allowing a person to match DiMaggio in just four weeks. A new Scotts-sponsored mulligan program will also allow fans to restart one streak that ends between five and 10 games. The new “Beat the Streak” is also fully integrated with Facebook Connect, and will be tied directly into the fan loyalty program.
MLBAM also is developing a competitive “Beat the Streak” league involving ad agencies that it works with, not unlike the high-profile, agency-only fantasy football league operated by the NFL each fall.
That was one of my key takeaways from a panel with some of the smartest minds in the sports media business at our World Congress of Sports held late last month.
When asked which sports business story they would be following most closely over the next 12 months, four of the five executives talked about nontraditional media companies.
Check out their answers:
■ Bedrocket Media Ventures co-founder and CEO Brian Bedol: “Will one of these new platforms write a big check and use sports as Fox and DirecTV did to really break into the mass audience business?”
■ NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein: “Are these virtual competitors out there real? Is Google or Yahoo! really going to make a leap and try to bring entertainment to the consumer into the home?”
■ Dick Clark Productions CEO Mark Shapiro: “They’re coming. There’s no question. And they have the pockets to do it. They’ve got to get the technology. And they’ve got to get the content.”
■ Pac-12 Enterprises CEO Gary Stevenson: “Will the big technology companies make the investment and really want to be a player in this industry? It’s part of the reason we put our building in San Francisco, as opposed to Los Angeles, because we’re a pitching wedge away from them and we can have a conversation.”
I was surprised with the time frame these executives are putting on this move, and while much of sports media has been focused on having CBS or Fox or NBC creating a competitor to ESPN, some on the panel said companies like Microsoft and Google could be the sleeping giants of the sports media marketplace.
“Certainly NBC and Comcast and cable competitors are buying into content,” Stevenson said. “To me, [the biggest competitors to ESPN] are Microsoft and Apple and Google, who have recognized that our content is a way to help aggregate audiences. Brands like the NFL, Pac-12 or NBA are interesting ways for them to segment their content. I believe that’s where the competition is coming from. Last time I checked, they have pretty deep pockets.”
This is good news for rights holders, who are hoping to see the same competition for digital rights that they are seeing with linear TV rights. The NFL’s Bornstein pointed at digital companies as a reason why the league’s rights fees should continue to grow. Even if cable and satellite business slows, these new companies will need live events — like sports — to draw audiences.
“It’s the only place you can aggregate large audiences,” Bornstein said. “Everybody says everything is going to plateau. I think the value of sports assets are only going to continue to be increased.”
A concern, however, is that the amount of online content will make it more difficult to aggregate big enough audiences to attract advertisers, which ultimately fund the rights fees.
“How are you going to launch the next big idea?” Bornstein added. “If you create FedEx, how are you going to tell people about it if consumption of media is so fragmented that you have to buy a billion impressions across a million assets?”
Still, the panelists were convinced that changes are coming to how consumers will view sports. And it’s coming sooner than many think.
“Where it gets interesting is when more and more people have the Internet connected to the big screen and there’s no difference between what you’re getting over cable and what you’re getting over the Internet,” Bedol said. “People are going to gravitate not just to the best screen. They’re going to gravitate to the best experience.”
In fact, Stevenson said the Pac-12 has had conversations with digital media companies for the conference’s digital rights for the 1,300 to 1,400 mainly Olympic sports events that it will make available online.
“Whether we do that in partnership with Google/YouTube or whether we do that ourselves, that’s yet to be decided,” he said. “We’ve had some conversations. For us, that makes sense. That may not make sense for the NFL or somebody else.”
Lots of questions remain about what the digital world will look like. But digital media’s deep pockets and gaudy growth strategies are enough to get the sports media world to take a long, hard look.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.