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CBSSports.com parent company CBS Interactive is making a significant push into competitive video gaming, also known as eSports, striking deals to align with several major operators in the quickly emerging space.
San Francisco-based CBS Interactive has struck exclusive partnerships with two
eSports online communities, the Austria-based Own3D, and another San Francisco outlet, TwitchTV. CBS Interactive will serve as a sales and business development entity for both outlets.
CBS Interactive has also partnered with two of the major eSports properties, the established, New York-based Major League Gaming, and the upstart North American Star League, formed last year and based in California. In addition to serving in a similar sales and business development role, CBS Interactive will be the exclusive online broadcaster for MLG’s Pro Circuit tournament events.
While eSports carries little mainstream recognition compared with established stick-and-ball sports properties, the category boasts a rabid, engaged fan base among males ages 18-34 that are highly coveted by corporate advertisers. The audience has shown a tendency to consume large amounts of content online, as average viewing times for on-demand eSports videos routinely exceed 20 minutes, compared with less than three minutes a clip for other genres. Live eSports events regularly post even higher metrics.
“This is a hyper-engaged, hyper-social audience,” said Fouad ElNaggar, CBS Interactive senior vice president of strategy and corporate development. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to win this space. We want to own the category.”
CBS Interactive will broadcast MLG’s Pro Circuit events online.
Photo by:MAJOR LEAGUE GAMING
For the 10-year-old MLG, the CBS Interactive alignment will provide additional distribution and scale for a property that already generated more than 3.5 million unique video stream viewers in 2011 for its Pro Circuit competitions, 225 percent above the year before, and more than 15 million hours of video viewed.
“We talked with several groups, and CBS was the clear fit for us,” said Sundance DiGiovanni, MLG co-founder and chief executive. “I can’t just hire 30 salespeople and immediately get them up to speed to represent us, and nor would I want to. So there’s an instant boost in manpower with CBS coming on board. But this is much more than just a sales or distribution agreement. This is a true partnership, and we’re both invested in the future success of the league.”
Comcast Sports Group is in the process of bringing its national spot advertising efforts in-house for four of its regional sports networks.
The sales previously have been handled by several companies, including Fox Sports-owned Home Team Sports. The work now will be the responsibility of NBC Owned Television Stations, a group that comprises the 10 local television stations that NBC Universal owns.
The group chose Joseph Gallagher to be vice president of national sales for the RSNs. He will be based in New York and is expected to increase staff.
Ray Warren, Comcast Sports Group EVP and chief revenue officer, says the move is one he’s wanted to make from the beginning.
Photo by:SHANA WITTENWYLER
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do from the beginning,” said Ray Warren, executive vice president and chief revenue officer for Comcast Sports Group. “We would have done this sooner, but we had to wait for contracts to end.”
The change is noteworthy because it shows that Comcast and NBC are approaching the ad sales market differently as a result of their blockbuster merger more than a year ago.
If a national advertiser wants to place a schedule in Boston Celtics games, for example, it now will go through this new group. The moves do not change Comcast’s relationship with Home Team Sports, which still handles national multimarket sales, such as when a national advertiser wants to place a schedule across several of Comcast’s RSNs.
Warren is confident the move will be successful, especially considering a test he conducted last summer with New England Cable News, which also is part of the Comcast Sports Group. When NBC Owned Television Stations took over NECN’s national spot ad sales last August, sales through December were up 58 percent compared with the previous year. Warren attributed that increase to the presence of an in-house staff that was more invested in ad sales for the channel.
“We didn’t have to do this,” Warren said. “We only want to do it if it makes sense. Thanks to our NECN test, we know it makes sense.”
The move, which was led by the Comcast Sports Group, is an example of areas where Comcast and NBC still are figuring out how to work together.
“The Comcast SportsNets are powerhouses all over the country,” said Frank Comerford, chief revenue officer and president of commercial operations for NBC Owned Television Stations. “The ability to add them to our national sales portfolio is a natural extension that will help us provide stronger and even more reputable products to advertisers.”
USC has become the second university to cut a national radio deal around its football program, as ESPN picked up the rights to the Trojans’ home football games.
The multiyear deal is worth mid-six figures total, sources said. The deal marks the first time that ESPN has become a national radio partner for a college football team. Notre Dame is the only other school with a national radio deal, with IMG College.
The nationwide deal with USC is the first of its kind for ESPN, but it may not be the last.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“We will continue to hopefully grow in the college space,” said Tim McCarthy, senior vice president of ESPN Radio’s play-by-play and talent planning. “Live play-by-play programming is unique programming that you can’t get anywhere else. We want to get deeper into this space.”
ESPN will sell the games to local stations, giving first priority to ESPN affiliates. If the affiliates decide not to take it, they will try to sell it to non-ESPN radio stations in the market.
As part of the deal, ESPN will produce as many as three telecasts. One will be heard locally on ESPN 710 AM, ESPN’s flagship station in Los Angeles. Another will be produced for a national audience that ESPN will sell across the country, and the third will be produced in Spanish.
ESPN has not decided who will staff the national broadcasts. Pete Arbogast and Paul McDonald have done USC games locally in Los Angeles and are expected to stay.
The deal is an important part of USC’s strategy to give its brand a national platform.
“It’s a decent chunk of revenue, but that’s not the real story,” said Dan Shell, vice president and general manager of USC Sports Properties. “The story is about USC’s brand. This deal is one small sign of the brand power that it has nationally.”
Shell came on board in January when Fox Sports hired him from IMG College. In December, Fox signed a 10-year deal worth more than $7 million a year to manage USC’s multimedia rights. USC previously had a deal with Touchdown Radio Network, but the deal was not national.
As part of the ESPN Radio deal, USC will use some of the radio inventory in its corporate packages.
“We want to grow the brand the right way,” Shell said. “Because it’s a national brand, it’s not limited to the traditional sales cycles and budgets.”
ESPN was a willing partner.
“We want to be championship audio, and we want to distribute it on as many platforms as we can,” McCarthy said. “We want to expand our footprint in college football and basketball.”
With Comcast’s assets at its disposal, NBC Sports this week plans to roll out its most robust and comprehensive Olympic promotional push.
The company plans to feature 30-second advertisements across 20 channels and 66 websites over the last 100 days leading up to the London Games. The promotional efforts will kick off Wednesday with a spot featuring 16-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin during the “Today” show.
For the first time in NBC’s Olympic history, spots will run on Comcast-owned cable channels such as E! and Style. They also will run in the homes of Comcast subscribers, and customized ads will air on NBC affiliates.
NBC Sports will supplement its TV ad campaign with signage at NBC Universal theme parks and advertising at gas stations, Best Buy stores and with American Airlines.
“There’s an awful lot of hyperbole that goes around these things, but this particular time it’s the biggest Olympic campaign we’ve ever had, mostly because our company is bigger,” Miller said. “We’re not taking any chances. We want to make sure these Games are in the top tier and well-watched.”
Miller said the focus of the spots is on reminding people who watched the Beijing and Vancouver Games that the London Olympics are on the horizon. NBC’s research shows that those viewers enjoyed watching those Games and are more inclined to watch this summer’s Olympics.
As summer begins, the advertising campaign will shift its focus from the previous Olympics to the stars NBC plans to showcase this summer. Spots will highlight top athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh and gymnast Jordyn Wieber.
U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and BMW also will be featured in sponsor-integrated spots. Coke’s spots will feature conversations with Olympic hopefuls; Anheuser-Busch’s will feature youthful music; and BMW’s will feature footage of top athletes.
ESPN and NFL Network executives pledge only subtle changes to their NFL draft coverage this week, as the two networks compete head-to-head covering the event for the seventh consecutive year.
The competition between the two networks may not be as intense as the game on the field, but it exists. NFL Network staffers say they are aware of — and competitive with — ESPN’s coverage. Last year, NFL Network set a draft viewership record, averaging 566,000 viewers for its three-day coverage. ESPN averaged 2.994 million viewers for its three-day coverage, down double-digit percentages from a record-setting 2010.
“It’s like a game for us,” said Eric Weinberger, who produces coverage at NFL Network. “We want to see who can get the shot first.”
“We feel there should be a standing ovation for Jay,” Weinberger said. “The passing of the torch is kind of unbelievable.”
Despite the change, Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer who oversees all of ESPN’s NFL studio shows, says this year’s coverage, April 26-28, will look a lot like last year’s. That was when the network pared down the number of analysts and reporters who appeared on camera during the draft’s first day.
“I will be following Jay Rothman’s plan to a T,” Markman said. “I watched Fred Gaudelli and Jay produce draft coverage. To be next in line is exciting. I just want to make sure I don’t screw it up.”
Last year, ESPN featured a desk with Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper, while putting reporters Adam Shefter and Chris Mortensen at a different desk. Previously, ESPN would have many more analysts on camera, making it difficult for everyone to comment on-air.
The changes from last year that viewers will see on ESPN will be subtle, Markman said. After seeing picks in last year’s draft reported on Twitter before they were announced officially, ESPN is going to put “Insider Alerts” on screen. Patterned after Twitter, the alerts will allow Shefter and Mortensen to break news on-screen without having to wait to be on-camera.
“We’re looking at different ways to get information to our viewers,” Markman said. “We have to acknowledge that there’s so much real-time information right now.”
ESPN also plans to use former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian on camera, though he will not be at the network’s main desk.
ESPN’s second-day coverage will keep the same talent as the first day. On the third day of the draft, ESPN will bring in additional talent, including Trent Dilfer, Todd McShay and Ron Jaworski.
NFL Network also is planning few changes to its coverage this year. Perhaps the biggest change will come the day before the draft, when analyst Mike Mayock hosts a mock draft at 8 p.m. ET.
“Mike is the star of our NFL draft coverage. He’s taken this to another level,” Weinberger said. “He knows every throw these guys have made.”
NFL Network will continue to expand its live coverage of teams’ “war rooms.” Last year, it had cameras with 10 teams. This year, it will have more, Weinberger said, without revealing a total number. Teams that have agreed to have cameras in their “war rooms” include the Colts, Dallas, Denver and Green Bay.
The channel also plans to put reporters at team-run parties held at their facilities.
• A trusted source called after reading the column, “Experts expect to see tech giants at sports rights table soon,” in the April 2-8 issue. He said the premise of the column — that Internet giants like Google or Apple could be making a play for sports content sooner than people think — was just plain wrong.
First, he pointed to TV networks that are doing TV deals these days only if Internet rights are included. That leaves high-priced packages available to these digital upstarts. Even with deep pockets, a company like Google is not likely to invest in major U.S. rights, he said, because it doesn’t have a logical way to make that money back.
“They are promising a broadcast model,” my source said. “The problem with that is that when it comes to sports, broadcasters aren’t using the broadcast model anymore. Broadcasters are trying to develop two revenue streams.”
My column quoted several executives saying that Google and Apple could be real players in the sports world, but this person said he didn’t expect anything to happen in the next five or 10 years, at the earliest. It would take a real leap of faith for a major league or conference to subordinate its brand to an upstart when the money is there for broad distribution on broadcast and cable, plus Internet and wireless on an authenticated basis.
It’s an interesting topic to debate. Of course, when asked if he wanted to be quoted for this column, he declined. It turns out that his company does business with Google and Apple.
• Lou Borrelli, a well-respected veteran of the cable industry, emailed after reading last week’s story on local TV ratings for NHL teams. Pittsburgh and Buffalo, by far, posted the highest local TV ratings among U.S.-based NHL teams. Penguins games on Root Sports drew a 7.89 rating; Sabres games on MSG were at 6.55. Next on the list was Boston, where Bruins games got a 4.72 on NESN, well below Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
Borrelli suggested that the lack of NBA teams in Pittsburgh and Buffalo is a main reason why their hockey ratings are so big. It sounds obvious, but when I wrote the story, I didn’t consider that factor. Nobody I talked to suggested it was a factor. In hindsight, it likely plays a huge part.
Pittsburgh and Buffalo are good sports towns. They are both strong hockey towns, and I suspect their NHL ratings would remain big even with NBA competition. But would they remain so much bigger than everyone else? Probably not. When the Penguins and Sabres play, there’s no local NBA equivalent in the market to compete for those sports viewers.
• When CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports decided to close their jointly owned Mountain West Conference channel, the Mtn., a story in SportsBusiness Daily said the move made sense for the networks and the conference’s schools. Josh Pacheco of KHLO-AM in Hawaii questioned whether the move, which affects 44 employees, actually was good news for the conference’s schools. After all, they are trading one hard-to-get channel in the Mtn. for another hard-to-get channel in CBS Sports Network. In the process, they are losing a lot of control over the content, and some Olympic sports rights will revert back to the schools.
I see the move as a good one for the conference. CBS Sports Network more than triples the Mtn.’s current distribution (45 million homes versus around 13 million homes). More importantly, CBS has a management team in place led by former ESPN executive David Berson that has a plan to grow the channel. The Mtn. wasn’t going to grow significantly. The Mountain West Conference would be wise to grow alongside CBS Sports Network.
• The glut of national sports networks, like CBS Sports Network, was a recent topic on Eli Gold and Stan White’s show on 97.3 The Zone in Birmingham, Ala. With all of ESPN’s channels, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, all of the league and conference-owned channels, Tennis Channel, Golf Channel, Speed, and Fox Soccer, Gold and White asked whether consumers really needed another national channel from Fox.
For Fox, it’s less about what consumers actually want and more about how to stay involved in the sports business. Fox has heard from rights holders that they need a well-distributed national cable network if they want to compete with CBS, ESPN and NBC for rights. All three of those groups have national multisport cable channels. So far, Fox has been a big player on the national and regional sports scenes. If it wants to keep that seat at the table for national rights, it will have to set up a channel beyond its broadcast windows for rights.
Fox still hasn’t said whether it will launch such a channel — but I bet they do.
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.