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Despite staying below .500 for much of the first half, the Detroit Tigers have posted the highest local RSN rating among MLB’s U.S.-based teams this season.
Detroit-area fans are high on the Tigers and new arrival Prince Fielder, sending ratings up nearly 50 percent.
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The Tigers, an early-season favorite this year after signing free agent Prince Fielder, were averaging an 8.65 rating on FS Detroit at the All-Star break, up 46 percent from the same point last season and marking the team’s highest local rating since at least 1996 (as far back as SportsBusiness Journal’s local TV records go). The 159,000 Detroit homes that tune in to each game on average represent MLB’s fifth-highest such mark so far this season.
MLB’s other strong local media stories include the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals, who have posted their highest ratings on record. In addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates are experiencing their highest local TV numbers since 1997.
In Cincinnati, the Reds have parlayed their strong start on the field into the league’s second-highest local TV rating. Reds games have averaged an 8.45 rating on FS Ohio, up 8 percent from last year.
MLB teams’ RSN ratings
AVERAGE RATING Top 5 Team RSN Avg. rating (Change) Detroit Tigers FS Detroit 8.65 (+45.9%) Cincinnati Reds FS Ohio 8.45 (+7.9%) St. Louis Cardinals FS Midwest 8.32 (-8.2%) Boston Red Sox NESN 7.37 (-3.0%) Texas Rangers FS Southwest 6.17 (+82.5%) Bottom 5 Chicago White Sox CSN Chicago 1.85 (+10.8%) San Diego Padres FS San Diego 1.82 (-49.2%) Houston Astros FS Houston 1.27 (-24.0%) Oakland A’s CSN California 1.11 (-14.6%) Los Angeles Angels FS West 1.06 (-4.5%) RATING CHANGE Top 5 Team RSN Change (Avg. rating) Texas Rangers FS Southwest +82.5% (6.17) Los Angeles Dodgers Prime Ticket +61.7% (1.94) Tampa Bay Rays FS Florida/Sun Sport +58.1% (5.47) Washington Nationals MASN/MASN2 +50.7% (2.23) Detroit Tigers FS Detroit +45.9% (8.65) Bottom 5 Cleveland Indians SportsTime Ohio -23.6% (4.82) Houston Astros FS Houston -24.0% (1.27) Colorado Rockies Root Sports Rocky Mountain -25.3% (3.42) Philadelphia Phillies CSN -32.8% (5.89) San Diego Padres FS San Diego -49.2% (1.82) AVG. AUDIENCE SIZE Top 6 Team RSN Avg. no. of Households (Change) New York Yankees YES 304,000 (-1.0%) New York Mets SportsNet NY 190,000 (+11.1%) Philadelphia Phillies CSN 176,000 (-33.3%) Boston Red Sox NESN 175,000 (-6.4%) Texas Rangers FS Southwest 159,000 (+80.7%) Detroit Tigers FS Detroit 159,000 (+42.0%) Bottom 5 Kansas City Royals FS Kansas City 38,000 (+11.8%) Miami Marlins FS Florida 35,000 (-2.8%) Oakland A’s CSN California 28,000 (-15.2%) Houston Astros FS Houston 28,000 (-22.2%) San Diego Padres FS San Diego 20,000 (-48.7%)
“Detroit and Cincinnati are great baseball markets, and the Tigers and Reds have given their fans a reason to cheer — and to tune in,” said Jeff Krolik, executive vice president for Fox Sports Networks. “Local ratings are up in many of our markets, which speaks to the overall strength of the game.”
Following two consecutive trips to the World Series, the Rangers are again in first place in the standings, and the team’s ratings on FS Southwest have showed the biggest increase in the league this season. The Rangers’ 6.17 average rating is up 83 percent from last year.
After seven years, it appears the Nationals are making big strides in their home market: The team’s average of 53,000 homes that tune in to games on MASN, MASN2 and WDCW-TV locally is the highest number since the franchise moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005. At last year’s All-Star break, the Nats’ average of 29,000 homes was the league’s lowest.
Last year’s local TV champion, the Philadelphia Phillies, have seen their TV ratings mirror their last-place performance on the field in 2012. The team’s ratings have dropped to seventh place this year, as its 5.89 average rating on CSN in Philadelphia is down 33 percent from last year.
Two teams in transition also have seen their local ratings drop sharply this season.
The Padres, who moved to FS San Diego this season, and the Astros, who are winding up their last season on FS Houston, are posting their lowest ratings since at least 1996.
The Padres’ 1.82 rating is down 49 percent from last season, and their average of 20,000 homes per game is the league’s lowest. The team’s local TV performance is hurt by the carriage battle that has kept the channel off the market’s second-biggest cable operator, Time Warner Cable.
The problems in Houston have more to do with on-field performance. With the worst record in MLB, the Astros’ 1.27 rating is down 24 percent from last year.
Analysis was done on ratings for 29 U.S. MLB teams. In Canada, Toronto Blue Jays games on Sportsnet average 602,600 viewers, a 22 percent increase from last year, according to BBM Canada.
MLB is nearing completion of a multiyear deal with NBC Sports to create a weekly documentary series titled “Caught Looking” that will begin Aug. 15 on NBC Sports Network and chronicle behind-the-scenes elements of a key weekend series.
The effort, to be produced by MLB Productions, further expands the league’s interest in developing documentary programming, joining efforts such as “The Franchise” on Showtime and a range of programs on MLB Network. For NBC, the deal provides a prominent piece of post-Olympics programming and joins the recently announced monthly magazine show “Sports Illustrated” as significant additions to its lineup.
“Caught Looking” will share similarities to “24/7” or “Hard Knocks” in that it will feature a rapid turnaround schedule: a Friday-Sunday series will be chronicled in an episode the following Thursday — which will become the show’s regular weekly air date after its Wednesday, Aug. 15, debut.
But rather than focus on one specific team or set of teams throughout, the featured series will shift each week based on emerging pennant races. “Caught Looking” will begin with a Philadelphia-St. Louis matchup, followed by Boston against the New York Yankees. Subsequent series have not yet been selected. Actor Morgan Spector will provide voice-overs for the series.
“Baseball has had a long history on NBC, and we think we do storytelling as well as anyone,” said Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming. “We had a really good experience putting together ‘NFL Turning Point’ with NFL Films, focusing on individual plays. And though this program won’t be that specific, we wanted similar, attractive original programming that moved deeply into baseball.”
Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal was described as a licensing pact in which NBC paid to get access to the content.
NBC parent company Comcast is contractually tied to several MLB teams through its regional sports networks, but the “Caught Looking” deal gives NBC itself a formal relationship with the league for the first time since it stopped airing games after the 2000 playoffs.
“Caught Looking” is not tied to MLB’s developing TV rights negotiations. The league is courting interest from several potential bidders, including NBC, for national TV packages that would begin with the 2014 season. The NBC-MLB deal for the documentary series is for the rest of this season and for 2013. The league is slated to complete its next round of national TV deals long before next season is done.
“This is completely independent of the rights discussions,” Miller said. “The conversations on this series started last fall. We’re nearly a year in development on this, and we’re booked for next year. So it’s two totally separate things.”
MLB executives declined to comment.
■ We know that the incumbents — ESPN, Fox and Turner — want to at least maintain their existing packages and possibly expand them.
■ We know that MLB will get a significant increase over the $711.7 million annual average it receives from its three current national television deals, which end after next season.
■ We know that MLB Network will continue to show live games.
■ And we know that NBC Universal already has started negotiating for a live-game package for its NBC Sports Network.
Consultants say Turner’s rights package is the most vulnerable, but Turner has made clear it wants to hold its ground.
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MLB has two options. It could carve out enough packages to make everybody happy, as sports media consultant Mike Trager suggests. “It is possible to cut everyone in. I don’t see baseball leaving ESPN. I don’t see them leaving Fox. I would try to be all-inclusive.”
Or, it could keep the same number of packages, ensuring that at least one TV channel remains as a stalking horse to keep rights fees high, as Desser Sports Media President Ed Desser suggests. “Baseball needs to find the sweet spot where one potential bidder is left out at the end,” Desser said. “That’s the surest way for baseball to maximize its value.”
The NFL set a precedent by splitting its TV inventory among five networks, including NFL Network. With more live game inventory than the NFL, MLB has plenty of content to carve out enough packages for all of the interested networks. The concern is that an additional package would devalue the ones already in the market, Desser said.
There’s also a precedent where ESPN and Fox have tried to keep NBC Sports from acquiring rights. The two rivals partnered on a Pac-12 deal last year as a way to keep NBC from getting a foothold in the college sports media market.
“My sense is that the incumbents are happy and content with their packages,” said Neal Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports. “The question is whether the incumbents will step up to a higher level.”
As with most media deals, the networks with the biggest bids are the ones most likely to win. But as Pilson points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the biggest networks will write the biggest checks. Rather, he said, we should look at the networks with the biggest growth opportunities.
“Sports help drive new business opportunities. Networks will pay more than a package is worth if it can help them increase the number of subs or increase the sub fee,” Pilson said. “That’s a problem for ESPN. It is a mature network. It is fully distributed. ESPN doesn’t have a lot of growth potential. That’s where this can get interesting.”
The other potential bidders all have more room for growth, Pilson said.
NBC has NBC Sports Network, which is in 78 million homes and has an affiliate fee of 31 cents per subscriber per month, according to SNL Financial. Compared to ESPN, which is in 98 million homes with an affiliate fee of more than $5, there’s significant room for growth.
Pilson also pointed to Fox as a media company with growth potential. Fox executives have considered switching Speed from a motorsports channel to an all-sports network. Speed has room for growth: It is in 81 million homes with an affiliate fee of 22 cents.
Turner also has more runway than ESPN, Pilson said. He pointed to truTV, which has been televising more sports, including March Madness and a NASCAR race. TruTV is fully distributed; it’s in 92 million homes. But its license fee is just 12 cents, according to SNL Financial. With more sports content, that affiliate fee should rise.
“Then you’re dealing in economics that go beyond P&L for the package itself,” Pilson said. “That’s critical in sports today.”
The consultants were unanimous in believing that ESPN would retain a significant MLB package.
“When you consider subscription fees, it’s hard to imagine ESPN not getting a very strong package,” Desser said.
They also predicted that Fox would wind up keeping the broadcast package. CBS is not a player, and NBC’s broadcast network would have conflicts between the World Series and “Sunday Night Football” if it gets a package.
The consultants believe Turner’s package is the most vulnerable, even though Turner has made it clear that it wants to keep its package.
“Turner’s package is the newest and not as deeply rooted as the others,” Trager said.
They also had lots of skepticism about whether NBC would wind up with a package. Joel Lulla, a sports TV consultant who is a professor at the University of Texas, believes NBC will be shut out.
“It’s going to be expensive,” Lulla said. “There’s so much non-exclusive regular-season programming out there, it would be hard to drive distribution.”
If I were to make a bet, I believe MLB will renew with its existing partners: ESPN, Fox and Turner. I question NBC’s willingness to bid competitively on an MLB package.
NBC is at the table, and I believe its executives are negotiating in good faith. But I get the feeling that the network is waiting around to see if there’s a bargain to be had — and I don’t get a sense that there will be any “bargain” considering the strong position that MLB is in.
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.
MLB Advanced Media and the USA Today Sports Media Group plan to launch Sports On Earth, the first website in their content joint venture, in late August as a storytelling-based destination aimed at restoring the high-quality sportswriting disappearing from many newspapers.
Conceived as something of a digital sports bar, Sports On Earth will focus primarily on columns and feature stories aimed at giving a distinctive take on sports news of the day.
Joining already disclosed hires of Joe Posnanski, formerly of Sports Illustrated, and Tommy Tomlinson, formerly of The Charlotte Observer, on a full-time basis are Gwen Knapp, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle; Shaun Powell, formerly of NBA.com and ESPNNewYork.com; and Mike Tanier, formerly of The New York Times and FootballOutsiders.com, with more hires yet to come.
Several others are also joining Sports On Earth as contributors, including New York Magazine’s Will Leitch and Richard Justice, currently with MLB.com. Steve Madden, previously with Rodale Inc., will be the general manager of Sports On Earth and the overall joint venture, and Larry Burke, also previously with Sports Illustrated, is site editor.
The staff will be based in New York City, where MLBAM is situated, but in its own dedicated space. There’s no projected head count, but staffing is likely to be lean.
Before the full launch of Sports On Earth next month, Posnanski will travel to London to cover the Summer Olympics and generate content for a dry run of the site.
“What we’re trying to do is help restore the tradition of great sportswriting and great storytelling,” said Dinn Mann, MLBAM executive vice president of content. “Great writers have been sort of getting a raw deal for about a decade in terms of having proper venues to really get their content out there. We think this is the right product at the right time for an industry that needs a kick in the pants.”
Comparisons to similarly structured sites such as ESPN’s Grantland.com are likely to be inevitable, but Sports On Earth plans to focus strictly on sports and not veer into pop culture subjects.
“We want readers to anticipate our take on a big sports story of the day, sort of like they do the back page of the tabloids,” Mann said.
Sports On Earth will be an advertiser-supported site, free to users, with MLBAM and USA Today sharing selling duties. The mix of sponsors is to be determined but will probably aim toward fewer, bigger partners. The site is designed to be a dedicated buy rather than being tied to other deals. It will also have mobile and tablet-optimized versions.
While text-based content will be the primary element of Sports On Earth, it also will feature multimedia elements such as podcasts, video and photo essays. It’s being designed internally with help from USA Today and MLBAM.
MLBAM for years has used Sports On Earth as a secondary brand encompassing all its non-MLB digital work. Both MLBAM and USA Today executives quickly latched on to Sports On Earth as a viable name for the new site.
Posnanski said his decision to leave Sports Illustrated, where he spent three years and was happy, was by far the most difficult of his decorated career.
“This is new and very exciting,” Posnanski said of Sports On Earth. “Perhaps the best thing is that we’re not saddled with any legacy issues. We literally had a blank board on what we wanted this to be.”
The Whistle, the startup sports content developer aimed at youth audiences, has struck a cross-platform content and distribution agreement with U.S. Soccer, extending a run of alignments with sports properties and governing bodies.
Following a deal struck last month with the U.S. Olympic Committee, The Whistle will create a series of shows highlighting the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams using both newly created and archival footage. Content will appear on platforms including NBC Sports Network, TheWhistle.com, YouTube and channels distributed through video gaming consoles such as Xbox 360.
Financial terms were not disclosed, but similar to the USOC deal, The Whistle paid Chicago-based U.S. Soccer a licensing fee to gain access to the U.S. Soccer content. Slated for a formal launch Sept. 21, The Whistle is targeting youths ages 6 to 16 and is backed by sports industry luminaries and pro athletes.
“We’re continuing to surround ourselves with top-flight sports brands, and connection to the national teams in a huge sport with kids like soccer is absolutely critical for us,” said Jeff Urban, The Whistle co-founder and chief marketing officer.
The Whistle earlier this year partnered with the NFL. More partnerships with sports properties are in the works, Urban said.
“This relationship allows us to connect the national teams better with younger fans and expand our demos,” said Michael Gressle, U.S. Soccer director of marketing, information technology, communications and events. “We do well in those core 18-34, 18-44, demos, but this allows us to expand the field.”