SBJ/May 28-June 3, 2012/Opinion

Competitor to 'SportsCenter' is out there

News broke recently that Fox executives were considering a plan to launch a national sports network to compete with ESPN. The media largely focused on the impact of another deep-pocketed player in the lucrative sports rights marketplace.

No doubt, live events are the core of the business, attracting large audiences and driving big ad and distribution dollars. The potential to launch a regional sports network in the Los Angeles market drove the $2.15 billion sale price of the Dodgers. The NFL dominates television because of its incomparable ability to consistently deliver large audiences.

Yet we overlook a huge story in all the talk about sports rights bidding and ESPN’s dominant position in live events: After more than 30 years “SportsCenter,” ESPN’s signature show, remains the only television program distributed nationally dedicated to sports news.

Can you think of another major programming category ceded to one network exclusively? “The Today Show,” “60 Minutes,” “The Tonight Show,” “American Idol” all were first movers in their respective genres and established dominant positions among audiences and advertisers, yet that did not stop networks from creating similar, profitable programs.

RSNs and league networks operate successful news franchises but they tend to be sport-specific or locally focused. Fox and CNN made fleeting attempts nationally in the past. Versus never really tried to compete with “SportsCenter.” NBC Sports Network, the rebranded Versus, airs “NBC Sports Talk” at 6 p.m. daily, head-to-head with “SportsCenter,” but its core is discussion and analysis, not news and highlights.

Television is a copycat business. The failure to mount a sustained challenge to “SportsCenter” in 30 years must rank as one of the industry’s greatest historical anomalies.

While live events are a must, fans will watch games wherever they’re aired. The differences in network event productions have little, if any, impact on ratings. Therefore, it’s extraordinarily difficult to build a brand with leased content. General sports news gives fans a reason to tune in daily, indeed multiple times a day. Without an alternative to “SportsCenter,” it’s difficult to imagine any network establishing a competitive brand.

The NFL’s impact on ESPN’s affiliate fees is well-chronicled, yet over the years the network’s sales teams have wisely emphasized the power of the brand in pitches to advertisers and affiliates. The heart and soul of ESPN’s brand is not “Monday Night Football” — it’s “SportsCenter.”

There is ample economic justification for other networks to make a challenge. The sports news marketplace drives hundreds of millions of dollars annually for ESPN. The show’s success allows ESPN to monetize all events, even ones it doesn’t air.

“SportsCenter” remains a phenomenal, ubiquitous product. Some argue that trying to compete with such a juggernaut would be foolhardy. Between the highlight licenses and production costs, it wouldn’t be cheap. There is no question, however, that NBC Sports Group, CBS and Fox possess the resources and skills to do it. Frankly, it might be a wiser investment than some sports properties. From a marketplace standpoint, there’s little doubt that marketers and media buyers would embrace, and perhaps disproportionately reward, a credible challenge to “SportsCenter.”

Moreover, creating a sports news media franchise optimized for a four-screen, socially connected world presents an extraordinary opportunity to redefine the industry. It might be intriguing enough to entice cash-rich, nontraditional media players like Apple, Facebook or Google to mount a challenge.

It will take time, but perhaps the mountain isn’t as high as we think. Remember, “American Idol” seemed unstoppable in 2010. Now, it’s chasing “The Voice.”

Fred Bucher (fredbucher@transaction-sports.com) leads Transaction Sports, a new sports marketing company owned by Ryan Partnership and WSM Communications.


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