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Over on NHL Network, a viewer would have thought the world’s top hockey league was already on its summer break.
The league-owned TV channel was showing a canned documentary. It didn’t break into that program to start its own live postgame show until NBC Sports Network was 10 minutes into its show, an eternity in terms of TV production. Viewers who wanted to sample NHL Network’s coverage immediately when NBC went off the air were left with only one option: NBCSN.
For its part, the NHL says it was honoring an agreement that allowed NBC to hand off postgame coverage to NBCSN before NHL Network went on the air. But the decision to cede the prime Stanley Cup Final postgame audience to NBCSN perpetuated a narrative that has defined the channel since its 2007 launch: that it is still not ready for prime time.
It brought up memories of the league’s mandate last fall that the network not cover the NHL’s negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association for a collective-bargaining agreement during the four-month lockout. It also stood in contrast to how other league-owned networks have operated on their championship nights. Just a few days earlier, following the series-clinching game of the NBA Finals, NBA TV went live with its postgame show immediately after ABC went off the air. NFL Network operated in the same manner when CBS wrapped up its Super Bowl coverage in February.
To be sure, NHL Network has turned into a nice business for the league. It is profitable, and league executives expect to see rapid growth during the next 12 months as it nails down distribution deals and props up its programming. Additionally, citing forthcoming Canadian media rights negotiations, which are expected to start by the fall, an NHL source said, “The NHL Network that you see today, six years in, is not necessarily the network that you’re going to see in year seven.”
But since its launch in the United States in 2007, NHL Network is not where league officials thought it would be, lagging other league-owned networks in terms of both distribution footprint and production qualities.
One of the network’s biggest challenges, ironically, has resulted from one of the league’s biggest successes. The NHL could not have envisioned, back in 2007, that the 10-year, $2 billion deal it signed with NBC in 2011 would hurt the channel’s growth, but sources say that it has. That’s because NBCSN has carried more games and shoulder programming than the league expected, a situation due in part to the fact that the NHL has been NBCSN’s biggest league partner for live game programming.
“When NBC has its exclusive games, we drive people to them and just go to taped programming,” said Bob Chesterman, NHL vice president of programming. “We’re trying to help our partner out. When ‘NHL 36’ [a 30-minute documentary following a player for 36 hours] comes out, we give NBC the first airing and then run it afterwards.”
“It makes it easy when you have all those events to cover, because we’re all over them from the day they start setting the rink up until the day they tear it down,” Chesterman said. “How much we’ll do live still has to be ironed out, but I’m sure it will be plenty.”
Multiple sources said the league also is close to a deal with the country’s second-largest cable operator, Time Warner Cable, that would move the channel to digital basic, the same tier that houses NFL Network, MLB Network and NBA TV. The league, according to cable industry sources, is using leverage from its out-of-market Center Ice package to convince Time Warner Cable to make the move: If Time Warner Cable wants access to Center Ice, it has to put NHL Network on digital basic.
Similarly, in 2008, MLB successfully tied carriage of MLB Network to its out-of-market package, Extra Innings, just before the channel’s Jan. 1, 2009, launch.
Complicating matters for the NHL Network is the fact that when it launched, the league signed 10-year carriage deals that placed the channel on sports tiers, sources said. It’s been a slow process convincing distributors to give the channel better distribution, but sources said the deals are coming.
NHL Network airs a show before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
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Chesterman said the decision to stay in hockey-mad Toronto, where the network has been based since launch, does not affect the network’s performance.
“It’s really a non-issue,” he said. “We’ve made upgrades to the studio in Toronto and that’s helped. It’s also a non-issue because the talent we get in Toronto is outstanding. You’re only as good as your talent. In the end, that’s what’s going to be our driving force.”
NHL Network initially was conceived to fill a void in the United States. League officials felt they weren’t getting enough coverage on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Plus, NFL Network and NBA TV were providing round-the-clock coverage for obsessive fans of those leagues.
In August 2010, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins hired Charles Coplin to the new position of executive vice president of content for the league, overseeing programming and production for NHL Network. By the end of 2010, Coplin was joined by Chesterman in the programming department, and former Time Warner Cable executive David Proper was hired as executive vice president of media strategies and distribution. In January 2011, former ESPN executive Mark Preisler was named executive producer of NHL Network. Preisler is responsible for the network’s live shows as well as the on-air talent and production staff.
Since launch, NHL Network’s on-screen successes have been with shows like “NHL Live,” a preview show with interviews and fan call-ins; “NHL on the Fly,” the wrap-around show that provides live look-ins to games; and “NHL Tonight,” which recaps completed games and has live look-ins at West Coast games. “NHL Tonight” is repeated through the following morning.
The network also has turned a healthy profit for the league. The channel is in about 43 million homes, charging 29 cents per subscriber per month, according to figures from SNL Kagan. Sources said the network made $53 million in affiliate fees and advertising in 2012 while spending $16 million in programming and production.
But those figures also reveal the major gap between the NHL and the top team sports in the United States along with their respective networks. NBA TV is in 61 million homes; NFL Network and MLB Network are in 71 million homes. MLB Network in 2012 brought in about five times as much as NHL Network in affiliate fees, and NBA TV brought in about three times as much, sources said.
Those figures are among the reasons why NHL Network closely watches its bottom line. In 2007, the network had 24 production and programming staffers. Today, it has 26.
But if NHL Network grows as league executives expect it to, its budget could grow with it. Viewers, down the line, might be able to see more immediate coverage of a team’s Stanley Cup celebration, as well.
There is a simple, unofficial mantra operating in the halls of many major sports properties and networks.
“In Igor, we trust.”
Igor is Igor Ulis, chief executive and co-founder of Omnigon Communications, a digital media agency with offices in New York, Toronto and Kiev, Ukraine. Among sports fans and general consumers, the Omnigon name is basically unknown. But in less than six years of operation, the firm has become a vital, behind-the-scenes cog in the sports industry, servicing varied clients that include NASCAR, the PGA Tour, MLB Advanced Media, the U.S. Tennis Association, MSG Sports, Fox Sports, Sporting News and the Westminster Kennel Club.
For those and other clients, Omnigon has built mobile applications, helped develop and articulate overall digital media strategies, constructed online content management systems and large-scale databases, and created a wide variety of second-screen experiences.
“They answer their phone at a moment’s notice, and it’s one of those things that they’ve been so important to us and
In less than six years, Omnigon has built an impressive client list including the likes of Fox Sports and NASCAR.
The ironic thing is that Ulis is not necessarily a rabid sports fan and does not have an initial history working in sports. Rather, his professional background before Omnigon lies primarily in biometrics and hard-core database and software development work for Something Digital, a New York-based technology firm he helped create.
But in 2007, he crossed paths with David Nugent, who in addition to working on sports marketing for RDW Marketing & Media in New York, was involved in several grassroots ice hockey efforts, including the Got Skills youth program supported by the NHL. Volunteering at another youth hockey event in Harlem, Nugent met a colleague of Ulis’ and learned that both he and Ulis were ready for the next challenge in their careers. Omnigon formed the following year.
“There was a basic notion around taking data and creating new sports products, and we were both ready to do something else,” said Nugent, a firm partner and head of business development and client management. “That was still sort of a new idea back then, and we had this systems and software background we believed would lend well to the needs we saw out there.”
But deep technical expertise alone was and is far from enough to build a viable business, particularly in an industry as insular as sports where relationships are a lifeblood.
While at a barber shop with his three sons, Perlman received a seemingly random call from Nugent, but a clear fit quickly emerged. Perlman was looking for clients to help, and Omnigon needed Perlman’s Rolodex and access to sports industry leaders. Sports Media Advisors is now an equity stakeholder in
“From a technical perspective, they’re total rock stars,” Perlman said. “It’s not just Igor and David, either, though the yin and yang between them is pretty great to see. There’s a really deep, strong team behind them. And they’re not just great theoretical technicians but have real business savvy, too.”
Omnigon’s work with NASCAR has taken on several fronts, including the development of the mobile apps, the overall migration of the property’s digital operations from Turner Sports, and the development of a site for its conservation efforts, the Green Innovation program. And very little of it arrived without some sort of drama.
There was the high-pressure presentation of the new NASCAR mobile apps in January during Qualcomm’s show-opening keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show. But that white-hot spotlight from the tech community paled compared to the divergent fan reaction that same month to the graphics-rich, SapientNitro-designed website that veers sharply from the largely homogenous look and feel of other league sites.
“When you do something different from the norm, you’re going to get a polarizing response. But there was and still is a much bigger vision,” Ulis said. “And the thing with that entire project is that every single detail in the migration to the new system was completely detailed and scripted. It was the complete opposite of a free-for-all.”
The PGA Tour provided a similar, if perhaps less publicly debated, process. Like NASCAR, the PGA Tour was looking to forge its own digital path after a long period with Turner and utilized Omnigon as a systems integrator helping lead the conversion. The tour flipped the switch to its own digital platform late last year after more than 18 months of preparation.
“This was a huge job,” said Luis Goicouria, PGA Tour vice president of operations and business development. “It was a major step for us to migrate our site onto our own platform. It’s sort of like fork-lifting a house, or changing the engine of a race car in the middle of a race. But Igor’s one of those guys who gives you an immediate sense of comfort. He just totally knows what he’s doing.”
After the company’s humble beginnings, Omnigon now has more than 70 employees, and like many other digital outfits is eyeing the European and Asian sports markets. Already, the company is working on relaunching the CONCACAF website in advance of next year’s World Cup.
The company did not disclose specific financial results. But annual revenue has already quintupled since its formation, and individual projects are routinely billed in six and seven figures each, a marked change from the “$25,000 projects we did back in the old days,” Nugent said.
“Overseas is a really big opportunity for them,” Perlman said. “Their expertise applies to both the property side and to media entities, and there are still a lot of folks in these other, emerging markets that haven’t yet maximized themselves.”
The Breeders’ Cup has partnered with Chris Russo’s CR Media Ventures to develop digital initiatives for horse racing’s annual championship, starting with a fantasy game aimed at drawing in new fans for this year’s two-day event.
Neither Breeders’ Cup CMO Drew Sheinman nor Russo would reveal the financial agreement between the companies, but Russo did say he would have an “advisory role” with the Breeders’ Cup in helping to build its digital properties, including fantasy games, social media and second-screen applications.
“Nobody knows fantasy sports better than Chris,” said Sheinman, who was hired as Breeders’ Cup CMO in May after years of working as a marketing executive for sports properties and major brands. “We are partnering with best of class. It’s part of our growth strategy.”
Russo said the Breeders’ Cup is the first major sports property he has worked with since he sold Big Lead Sports to Gannett in January 2012. Russo is also a former NFL senior vice president of new media.
“My perspective is you have a very exciting sport where digital media can be very important in driving new fans and the revenue streams that flow from that,” Russo said, adding that future revenue could come from sponsorship and online pay products as well as increased attendance and viewership.
Russo’s first project is the fantasy game, which is set to launch in mid-July. This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area.
I brought these complaints to Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer of production. He said he’s heard the same views from people both inside and outside of ESPN. The problem is that what people say and how they act don’t mesh.
People may say they want more stripped-down highlights. But TV ratings tell a different story.
Earlier this month, ESPN canceled “Highlight Express,” a highlights show on ESPNews that gave nothing but highlights. When the show launched, it received some buzz from people looking for an alternative to “SportsCenter.”
Fans wanting “SportsCenter” of the past often don’t tune in for shows focusing on highlights.
Photo by:JOE FARAONI / ESPN
“We canceled it because it didn’t really perform where we wanted it to,” Gross said. “It was a business decision based on performance and based on us putting resources into ‘SportsCenter’ and other highlight shows instead.”
NBC Sports Group had a similar experience with “The Lights,” NBC Sports Network’s morning show devoted to nothing but highlights — no anchor, no analysis, just highlights. Though the show created a good bit of buzz on social media, an audience never materialized. During the first three weeks in April, NBC Sports Network averaged 21,000 viewers for the show.
NBC put the show on hiatus during the NHL playoffs and plans to return with a retooled version of the show in late August.
“You will see ‘The Lights’ evolve, and the programming and our highlight strategy will come forward in a different format,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “I’m not ready to share what that’s going to be, but I will say that’s going to take on a unique format that’s relevant to the programming that we have coming this fall.”
The problem, according to both Gross and Miller, is that highlights have evolved. Shows like “Highlight Express” and “The Lights” — ones that offer nothing but game highlights — are competing with highlights available in an instant.
Fans are not sitting through an entire highlights show just to see two or three plays from their favorite teams. They are accessing them right away on their computer or mobile phone.
To program against that, ESPN and NBC Sports Group say the TV highlight shows of today need to give more context behind the highlights. That means bringing in analysts and reporters to tell the stories behind the games.
“On a highlight package, you really want to get a great sense of the story of the game or the story lines of the game so that you can properly document — essentially you are documenting the event,” Gross said. “Seeing your nuts-and-bolts highlight with four or five plays and the score — the audience is getting more sophisticated. They want more than just, ‘Here’s who won the game.’ They want context. They want to know why.”
What does that mean for ESPNews, a network that was created to show nothing but highlights?
“ESPNews is going to continue to evolve like everything else here,” Gross said. “Right now on ESPNews, there are more live games than there used to be. And now ESPNews is getting our franchise show, ‘SportsCenter,’ at least six hours a day.”
As for “The Lights,” Miller hinted that when it returns in late August, it will focus more on sports that have relationships with NBC, like EPL soccer and the NFL.
“People consume highlights differently, much as they consume media differently than they used to. If you don’t react to those changes, then you’re going to be left out,” Miller said. “That’s why you’re going to see us take ‘The Lights’ and evolve it to be consistent with the programming that’s on our different platforms and our different networks.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.
“The MMQB,” the new pro football-only website led by Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, is slated to debut July 22 with a mission to “be on the cutting edge of what people want to know about the NFL.”
The site will have its own Web address, themmqb.com, but will also receive extensive links and promotion on SI.com itself. King said that “The MMQB” will feature a mix of news, analysis, opinion and commentary, and a heavy mix of video content and social media integration. Joining him on the effort are full-time writers Robert Klemko, Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bedard, and contributors including SI media writer Richard Deitsch and Andrew Brandt, former Green Bay Packers executive and current director of the Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova University.
King, with SI since 1989, in March signed a three-year contract extension to stay with the magazine, with the “The MMQB” forming an important part of the renewal talks.
“We’re open to covering the NFL in a lot of different ways, and not just writing stories for a website and throwing them out there,” King said. “We’re going to try to do things in a more modern way than what I’ve seen out there in media.”
The effort represents the latest and most dramatic attempt by Sports Illustrated to create new multiplatform content brands within its portfolio. Other efforts include its “SI Now” daily talk show and the Swim Daily blog within SI.com.
Gillette, Microsoft and Bose have signed on as official marketing partners of the nascent venture, with potentially others to arrive as well.