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EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story was filed on Thursday, NASCAR over the weekend rejected a formal proposal from its broadcast partners that would have seen Fox and NBC begin televising the sport in 2014. NASCAR’s VP of Broadcast and Production Steve Herbst said, “While we were humbled by the desire of NBC and FOX to start 12 months early, we now consider this matter closed and look forward to finishing our current agreement in 2014 with our great partners at FOX, Turner and ESPN.”
ESPN, Fox, NBC and Turner still are trying to work out a NASCAR deal to have Fox and NBC take over the sport’s media rights a year early.
The media companies sent NASCAR a formal proposal that would have Fox and NBC begin broadcasting the sport a year early. But the sport’s top executives remain skeptical that any change will happen next season, saying it “fully expects to be back with our current broadcast partners, Fox, Turner and ESPN, in 2014.”
The proposal, which was put together by the media companies, would let ESPN and Turner forgo the final year of their contracts and end their partnerships with the sport after this season. Financial terms of the proposal weren’t available. But sources said that if NASCAR approved the plan, Fox would take the first half of the Nationwide Series from ESPN, NBC would take the second half of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series from ESPN. Fox and NBC would split Turner’s midseason, six-race package.
In a statement emailed last week, Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production, said, “As happens with all sports every time there’s a lame duck year, networks frequently explore the possibility of beginning their term earlier.
NBC has told us they are very eager to return NASCAR to its network, and Fox has shown tremendous interest in starting to broadcast the NASCAR Nationwide Series a year early. We’re thrilled about those networks’ excitement for the sport but know potential agreements like this one seldom get done. We fully expect to be back with our current broadcast partners, Fox, Turner and ESPN, in 2014.”
At a conference last week, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus spoke of the difficulties getting four networks to reach an agreement, on top of getting NASCAR to buy into it, along with teams and sponsors. “The longer it goes, the harder it gets,” he said.
Representatives from Fox, ESPN and Turner declined to comment.
Media companies often hold informal conversations about exiting deals early, but they rarely result in formal proposals. In the past decade, no rights holder has exited a media agreement with a major property early.
TV companies that lose rights to a sport a year before their contract ends typically ride out the final year of their agreement as a lame-duck rights holder. But NASCAR has found itself in a unique situation. Fox and NBC are eager to start their deals early, and ESPN and Turner are interested in exiting the sport before their contracts end.
Talks started in August when Fox and NBC signed new rights agreements with NASCAR for $8.2 billion from 2015 to 2024. Fox, which has televised the first half of the Sprint Cup season since 2001, picked up rights to the first half of the Nationwide Series and three more Sprint Cup races, while NBC picked up the rights to the second half each of the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series.
Fox is interested in getting rights to the Nationwide Series next season to help it program two new sports channels. The launch of Fox Sports 1 and 2 has left it with 48 hours of programming to fill a day, and it’s been acquiring rights for everything from golf’s U.S. Open to USA Rugby matches to fill it.
NBC Sports thinks adding 13 Sprint Cup and 19 Nationwide Series races would allow it to expose NASCAR fans to NBC Sports Network and give the cable network another asset to leverage in carriage negotiations with cable and satellite companies next year.
The company would be able to promote its NASCAR programming during next year’s NFL playoffs and Olympics, which typically deliver some of sports’ highest ratings.
Both ESPN and Turner declined to submit final bids for NASCAR TV rights in August and have expressed interest in exiting their deals early. Doing so would allow ESPN to eliminate production costs and shed its roughly $270 million annual rights fee for NASCAR. For Turner, it would complete the gradual unwinding of its ties to the sport, which began in early 2012 when it sold the rights to NASCAR.com back to NASCAR.
Two years after its inception, Red Bull Media House has signed its first TV rights deal with a major broadcaster.
Fox Sports has acquired the rights to four Red Bull signature competitions — Crashed Ice, X-Fighters, Cliff Diving and Air Race — beginning in 2014. Financial terms of the three-year deal, which provides 180 hours of live and highlight programming annually, weren’t available, but sources valued the deal in the high-six to low-seven figures. The events will air on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 from 2014 through 2016.
Fox Sports acquired the rights to four Red Bull competitions, including X-Fighters.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Several of the events Fox acquired have been shown on NBC and NBC Sports Network the past two years. Red Bull Media House next year will begin the final year of a three-year, revenue-sharing agreement with NBC’s Alliance of Action Sports that provides 23 hours of programming for Crashed Ice and other events branded as the Red Bull Signature Series. A new event will replace the Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship on NBC next year.
The Fox deal fulfills one of the goals Red Bull had when it created Red Bull Media House North America in 2011. The company, which operates out of Santa Monica, Calif., was designed to produce and distribute action sports and lifestyle content and expand Red Bull’s presence on TV. Its ultimate goal was to take programming from Red Bull events and athletes and monetize it.
“For the first time, all four global sporting series created by Red Bull will be available in the U.S., united on one network home,” said Werner Brell, managing director of Red Bull Media House North America, in a statement. “The deal with Fox Sports 1 is the largest U.S. licensing deal with a single network for Red Bull Media House.”
Fox Sports recently launched FS1 and FS2, giving it 48 hours of programming to fill daily with sports. Over the last few months, the company has acquired rights to everything from the NASCAR Nationwide Series to USA Rugby. The Red Bull deal gives it 180 hours of quality, well-produced events that will help it fill programming blocks on the new networks.
“This is something we’ve had our eye on for a while,” said Michael Bloom, Fox Sports’ senior vice president, original programming. “Bottom line, it’s amazing television. Not only is the action and competition spectacular, but the backdrops where they stage the events are mind-boggling. It’s hard to turn away from it.”
Bloom worked on the deal with Greg Jacobs, head of distribution for Red Bull Media House North America.
More than 10 months out from the launch of the SEC Network, ESPN’s focus has been more on building the infrastructure for the channel than attracting talent.
The Charlotte offices that currently house ESPN Regional Television and ESPNU will soon become the home to the ESPN-run SEC Network, and that means 110 to 120 new employees. They’ll need desks. And studio space.
The SEC is home to nine of the top 10 markets for college football TV ratings.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
ESPN also has been busy making sure that each of the conference’s 14 campuses are set up to produce games in high definition for the channel. ESPN executives already have visited the campuses to inspect their production capabilities and make recommendations. For example, Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said the school is purchasing a more powerful TV camera with a longer lens and an upgraded replay machine, based on ESPN’s suggestions.
It’s in the schools’ best interests to get up to speed because the network’s TV and digital platforms will broadcast just about any live event the schools can produce.
“We’re going to rely heavily on the campuses executing these productions,” said Justin Connolly, ESPN’s senior vice president of college programming who will oversee the SEC Network. “Schools like Alabama and Florida could do full productions tomorrow. Other schools need some work.”
Like other startups, perhaps the biggest challenge will be to persuade distributors to carry the channel. These negotiations are being led out of ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., by David Preschlack.
Connolly is working closely with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who recently appointed Charlie Hussey from the conference office to be the day-to-day contact with ESPN. Hussey, an Ole Miss graduate who has been with the SEC since 2000, has the new title of associate commissioner, SEC Network relations.
Slive, too, stays in touch with the network’s progress on a daily basis. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not involved one way or another,” Slive said. “It’s a top priority. Whatever time is needed to move the ball, I get to it.”
The network already has established an ambitious goal of broadcasting more than 1,000 live events during the 2014-15 academic year, including 450 on linear TV and 550-plus on the digital site. There are plans for an SEC-themed “SportsCenter” and college football “GameDay” show that will visit each campus over the course of the season.
Paul Finebaum’s radio show will simulcast on the SEC Network during weekday afternoons, just as “Mike and Mike” currently airs on ESPN2 in the mornings. As someone who will be an almost daily fixture on the network and a commentator offering strong opinions on weekends, Finebaum with his strong roots in the South could emerge as the face of the network. He has relocated to Charlotte, where his radio show now originates from.
“Paul is a nationally known commentator with a following. That adds an element of interest during the day,” Slive said. “But I think it’s very premature to say that any particular person will be the face of the network.”
Marketers who have seen early pitches for the SEC Network say the sales approach seems similar to ESPN’s other college properties, where sponsorships are tied to heavy, seasonlong advertising buys.
In addition to the ESPN ad sales team, the network has hired Birmingham-based Ben May to look after the league’s corporate partner program. May was doing the same job previously for IMG College when IMG had those rights. ESPN took over the corporate partner program during the summer.
ESPN also will control the digital rights beginning next summer to coincide with the network’s launch.
An early look at the channel’s program lineup shows how certain games will help the overall affiliate effort. The SEC Network opens with a Texas A&M-South Carolina football game. Both campuses are in Time Warner Cable-rich territories in their home states. Texas A&M also can affect Houston, about 90 minutes away and a Comcast-dominated area.
Time Warner Cable has been at the center of a number of public disputes recently with channels. It held out from carrying Longhorn Network for two years before finally reaching an agreement in August.
The SEC’s largest markets have proved to be strong TV markets for college football, Connolly said. Nine of the top 10 markets for college football TV ratings reside in SEC territory.
“We’re encouraged by looking at how the SEC markets deliver,” he said. “We’re trying to create a schedule where we get people excited about the robust live events.”
I’m not sure I really believe that sentence, but a panel of sports editors recently identified the UFC in particular as a group that already has cultivated female stars and is set up to develop more.
“I do think there’s a really interesting increase in MMA,” said Patrick Stiegman, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, speaking at SportsBusiness Journal’s Game Changers Conference last month.
On an earlier panel at the conference, T-Mobile’s director of sponsorships and events, Meredith Starkey, said the emergence of popular women like Ronda Rousey could make the sport more appealing to advertisers. When sponsors like T-Mobile start to take notice of a sport that still can’t get sanctioned in New York, it suggests that MMA is closer to being mainstream than many previously thought.
“It’s interesting to see what they’re doing, bringing in the female fighters now and how that will grow the brand,” Starkey said.
Numbers back up those claims. Earlier this year, Magna Global identified one-third of the UFC’s 18- to 49-year-old audience as female. That’s a figure consistent with the percentage of young women who view NFL games and a surprising stat to people who still complain MMA is too violent. ESPN.com traffic tells a similar story. Overall, MMA content generates 3 million unique visitors and 75 million page views a month.
“Those numbers were all near zero years ago,” Stiegman said. “Women are certainly part of that increase. They are riding that train, as well.”
In fact, Stiegman predicted that the Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate fight this December will bring in as much traffic as any other MMA match this year.
“We’ve certainly seen an increase in coverage on our site, specifically with women competing in The Octagon,” Stiegman said in an interview last week. “It’s quickly gone beyond curiosity to legitimate interest among fans.”
Stiegman admitted that he was skeptical about the growth of female stars in MMA as recently as three years ago, when Gina Carano was making headlines in the UFC as a breakout star. Now, he’s seen the UFC push women competitors through shows like “The Ultimate Fighter” and place women in main events on fight cards. And he sees the traffic female stars are bringing to ESPN.com.
ESPN.com’s Patrick Stiegman and Roopstigo’s Selena Roberts
Photo by:MARC BRYAN-BROWN
“It’s similar to women’s college basketball and the WNBA in that it’s a majority male audience,” Stiegman said. “But the female audience is growing.”
The trend of more women watching events is occurring across all sports. Former Sports Illustrated columnist Selena Roberts, founder of the Roopstigo sports network, noted that women aren’t necessarily watching women’s sports; rather, they are watching the same sports men watch.
“We’ll reach a new milestone when women start watching women play sports,” she said. “Right now, a lot of men watch women play sports. … It hasn’t reached the point where that conversation includes the WNBA on a regular basis. I hope that some day it gets to that point.”
The UFC’s push to develop female stars matches the effort by some sports outlets to cater more to a female audience. ESPN, for example, launched espnW three years ago as a place for women sports fans.
“In general, we take a different tact in our storytelling with W,” Stiegman said on last month’s panel. “It’s not quite as much about statistics, analytics and advanced metrics as it is about a more emotional connection, a more behind-the-scenes connection, or a first-person connection. … There’s a different type of storytelling we can offer through the W space that we know is resonating with women sports fans as well.”
Roberts complained that a specific destination like espnW feels like “marginalizing women’s sports to a page.” She said she would rather see espnW stories promoted more frequently on ESPN.com’s homepage.
Roberts drew applause from the audience when she said, “Have a section that is devoted to these great stories that you have on W that is occupied very often by Rick Reilly having the same column for the entire week. Then you’re saying to the world, ‘Everybody’s equal.’”
Stiegman responded that ESPN promotes espnW stories on its homepage “daily” — but the back-and-forth showed that sports outlets are serious about catering more toward women. And surprisingly, to me at least, mixed martial arts is helping to lead that change.
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.
USA Today Sports Media Group is planning a sizable increase in its original digital video offerings after striking a multiyear deal with New Jersey-based video producer and distributor CineSport.
The agreement provides the Gannett-owned USA Today Sports Media Group access to syndicated game highlights and press conference video footage. But the core of the pact is the infrastructure that will allow for the creation of original content using USA Today and other Gannett talent. The company’s online video efforts before this had been described by its executives as a “hodgepodge,” largely involving footage from Gannett-owned local TV stations.
“The relationship we’ve crafted here is a nimble one that gives us the latitude to do a lot of interesting things,” said Tom Beusse, USA Today Sports Media Group president. “This really accelerates the development of our digital video efforts, which obviously have become crucially important.”
Financial terms were not disclosed, but the pact involves a mix of upfront payments by USA Today Sports Media Group for access to CineSport’s digital video production infrastructure, and a revenue share on advertising sold through the partnership.
CineSport supplies video content to numerous major newspapers, including The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and New York Post. But the deal with USA Today Sports Media Group, which typically ranks in the top five among U.S. digital sports properties in monthly comScore rankings, gives the 6-year-old CineSport its largest outlet from a reach standpoint.
“USA Today is a really big player in this space, and this is by far our biggest opportunity to show what we can do,” said Gregg Winik, CineSport chief executive and a former NBA Entertainment executive.