SBJ/June 9-15, 2014/Media

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  • Weathering a storm: Rain dampens NASCAR ratings

    NASCAR’s TV ratings dropped 10 percent on Fox this season, following a stretch of races that experienced the circuit’s most weather-related delays in seven years.

    Fox averaged a 4.3 Nielsen rating and 7 million viewers through the first 13 Sprint Cup races of the season compared to a 4.8 rating and 7.8 million viewers last year.

    Rain delayed the start of the Daytona 500 in February, one of several rain delays this year.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    Fox and NASCAR executives blamed poor weather for this year’s decreases. The sport got off to a particularly bad start when rain delayed the start of the Daytona 500 more than six hours and forced it to air opposite the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony. Not surprisingly, the Daytona 500’s TV ratings dropped 43 percent from last year, earning a 5.6 rating and 9.3 million viewers.

    Subsequent rain delays at Bristol Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway (delayed until Monday) and Kansas Speedway made it difficult to build the type of momentum that typically drives viewership. But even with the 10 percent drop, NASCAR still ranked as the most-watched sports event of the day for nine of its 12 weekend races.

    “Between the rain and having to face the Olympics, [it] made it very difficult for us to get our traction,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “We didn’t have a point at any time this season where we had more than three consecutive races run without a rain postponement or significant rain delay.”

    Ad buyers said that NASCAR offers enough inventory over the course of its season to make up for any ratings declines advertisers experienced and said that this year’s ratings results shouldn’t affect advertising interest in the sport next year.

    “It’s important to note that even though we’ve been experiencing some ratings erosion on the NASCAR front, it’s still pulling huge numbers when compared to other sports properties as well as what is available in the general market,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director at Optimum Sports, a sports marketing and media agency that works with Gatorade, Lowe’s and other NASCAR advertisers. “Not too much out there right now that delivers NASCAR-size numbers on a regular basis.”

    Even through the overall viewership drop, NASCAR saw increases in key demographics. Hispanic viewership rose 12 percent, building on last year’s increase of 40 percent in that demographic. Plus, viewership in the 18- to 24-year-old male demo rose 6 percent.

    NASCAR also changed the way it determines the field for its postseason Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, as well. After determining the Chase field based on points for the last 10 years, it now will be made up of the drivers with the most wins. The field then will be narrowed from 16 drivers to four drivers over the final 10 races of the season.

    “We like our chances for a really good late first half into second half of the season,” said Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting and production. “As we get into the summer months and there are guys out there looking for wins and the Chase approaches, [viewership and ratings] will rise.”

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  • Abraham’s idea for sports interview show gets its chance on Epix

    Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

    More than three decades after first coming up with the idea for an interview-style show, sports media veteran Seth Abraham’s idea finally will see the light of day.

    Epix CEO Mark Greenberg greenlit two episodes of the series “Personal with Bill Rhoden” following a 20-minute meeting with his former HBO colleague 10 months ago.

    Seth Abraham’s show will make its debut this week.
    Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY

    Abraham worked with Greenberg at HBO in the 1980s and the two kept in touch, even as Greenberg moved to HBO’s rival, Showtime, in 1989. Abraham called Greenberg last summer to set up the meeting to pitch his idea.

    “Because we knew each other, at the very least, I didn’t have to sell myself. I had to sell the idea,” Abraham said. “We went in with two pages. When you meet with smart people, they don’t need more than two pages because they get it.”

    The 30-minute “Personal with Bill Rhoden” debuts this week on Epix with an interview featuring a famous sports family: former NFL player Calvin Hill and his son, Grant, a former NBA player. A second show with former boxer Oscar De La Hoya will run next month.

    Abraham first came up with the idea for the series — featuring an interviewer sitting off camera with the focus solely on the subjects — in the early ’80s while he was at HBO. But his idea never gained any traction at HBO. Abraham said he found it particularly difficult to find a good interviewer who felt comfortable staying off camera. Abraham said the show’s structure did not fit with the styles of HBO’s on-air talent, like Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas and Jim Lampley.

    “You need a special type of on-air host who is OK being off camera,” Abraham said. “It just didn’t fit at HBO. It never got off the ground. But I never gave up on it.”

    Epix will decide whether to order more episodes after the first two shows. Epix is a 4-year-old premium cable channel, similar to HBO, that is owned by Hollywood studios Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate. 

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  • Distributors’ new leverage may hold implications for Clippers

    Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

    It’s not a bursting sports rights bubble, but there seems to be a shift in negotiating leverage when it comes to local media rights.

    From what I’m seeing, distributors have gained the upper hand in these disputes, a development that should concern professional sports teams as they consider how to handle local media rights.

    Need evidence?

    It’s happening in Houston, where the Astros and Rockets still can’t get meaningful carriage via CSN Houston. It’s happening in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers have been stymied in carriage negotiations over SportsNet LA.

    And I expect it will happen with the Clippers in Los Angeles, where even though the market has six regional sports networks looking for content, the team is not likely to see a bidding war when its local TV deal with Prime Ticket ends after the 2015-16 season.

    The biggest problem is that distributors like DirecTV have become emboldened by recent programming disputes with sports networks. DirecTV has not reported significant subscriber losses even though it doesn’t have a national deal with Pac-12 Networks or local sports deals in Houston, Portland and Los Angeles.

    DirecTV says it has grown its subscriber base in the Houston market even though it has not carried Astros or Rockets games for nearly two years.

    Just last month, DirecTV CEO Michael White said the satellite distributor has seen “immaterial” churn in the Los Angeles market during the two months that his company has not carried the Dodgers.

    Of course I expect to see the Clippers reap a rights fee increase. It just won’t be anywhere close to the $200 million that the Lakers are getting annually. It won’t be close to half that figure.

    The Clippers’ deal with Prime Ticket pays the team $25 million to $30 million a year on average. Prospective new owner Steve Ballmer should expect those rights fees to more than double.

    Sources familiar with Fox Sports’ thinking said the company plans to use the Celtics’ 2011 deal with CSN New England as a model for the Clippers. In that deal, the Celtics went from a deal that had an annual rights fee of $15 million to $20 million to one that pays an average of $65 million a year, a figure that includes a 20 percent equity stake in the channel.

    The Celtics get higher TV ratings and have a more storied history than the Clippers. The Clippers generally have more viewers tune in to each telecast.

    The Clippers certainly don’t have as big a brand as the Dodgers in Los Angeles or the Celtics in Boston. A big deal for Clippers rights would not have any effect on whether a distributor carries a channel. If Los Angeles subscribers aren’t switching providers for the Dodgers, who really thinks they will switch for the Clippers? That will keep RSNs from entering into a bidding war for the second most popular NBA team in the Los Angeles market.

    Why has the negotiating leverage changed? Part of the reason lies in the fact that distributors have become more confident in their viewer research. Privately, distribution executives say they are able to base negotiations on whether teams have avid fans. Set-top box data tells distributors exactly how many people are watching a specific game at a specific time.

    It’s unlikely that distributors would drop the Red Sox in Boston, the Bulls in Chicago or the Penguins in Pittsburgh. I still believe SEC Network will be able to work out carriage deals before its August launch with distributors like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV because of the conference’s passionate fan base.

    But a team like the Clippers doesn’t have that kind of juice.

    Ironically, even with the presence of six RSNs that could bid for the rights, a market like Los Angeles is not a good one for the Clippers.

    The Lakers have editorial control over two of the channels, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Clippers and Lakers agree on a local TV deal.

    The Dodgers’ network, SportsNet LA, is another option. A Clippers deal would make programming sense for the channel, filling the late fall and winter months with live game action. But there’s an open question whether the channel could afford another big rights deal. It can’t get carriage on most Los Angeles cable and satellite systems with the Dodgers. How much more would the channel have to charge distributors if it paid up for Clippers’ rights? More importantly, what’s the likelihood a Clippers deal would persuade distributors to do a deal?

    Pac-12 Networks runs an RSN in the Los Angeles market, but it is solely focused on Pac-12 college sports and its executives have shown no inclination to expand beyond that.

    The Clippers could experiment with launching their own RSN, which would make the market’s seventh such channel. Given the problems the Dodgers are having getting carriage, it seems unlikely that a team like the Clippers could force distributors into a deal.

    That leaves the two Fox Sports-operated channels, Prime Ticket and FS West.

    Ballmer’s $2 billion bid has the potential to reset franchise values throughout the NBA. The team’s next media rights deal also will prove to be a test case on whether negotiating leverage really has moved to the distributors.

    John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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