SBJ/June 30-July 6, 2014/Media

120 Sports focuses on building a base

The biggest challenge for startup digital video network 120 Sports? Find a place for itself within the daily viewing habits of sports fans.

The Chicago-based venture began live programming last week after several months of preparation and public anticipation. It did so with a potent mix of infrastructure and assets that include ownership stakes and content rights from nearly every major U.S. sports property except the NFL and a custom-built, reconfigurable studio in the Harpo Studios complex that once housed Oprah Winfrey’s talk show.

The digital network began programming last week.
But what 120 Sports doesn’t have, at least not yet, is an established position in the national sports media landscape. The venture is specifically designed for the digital age, with a quick-hit, whiparound content format that moves from topic to topic in two minutes or less (hence the 120 name, for seconds). Social media is infused liberally throughout, and digital video is supplemented with adjoining “data cards” that provide stats, headlines, advertising and other material.

120 Sports executives said the company’s primary focus for the duration of the calendar year is to build awareness in a crowded media landscape, and, as a result, marketing will be heavy. Each of the equity partners, including Silver Chalice, the NHL, Time Inc., Campus Insiders, the PGA Tour and MLB Advanced Media, will promote the venture in both online and offline media. Specific plans include print ads on Time Inc. titles such as Sports Illustrated, and online ads and links within the leagues’ own home pages. The company is also pursuing an aggressive social media strategy, led in part by an active Twitter feed.

A 120 Sports sign will soon be installed on the outfield wall of U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, who also own Silver Chalice. And in late July billboards and subway ads for 120 Sports will begin appearing in New York.

“We’re really focused on building an audience base that is coming back regularly, and increasing their engagement, and we’ll worry about ubiquity later,” said Jason Coyle, 120 Sports president and vice chairman of Silver Chalice. “Our main thing is really about getting into the routine of a sports fan.”

The lack of the NFL either as a content partner or equity holder remains a notable absence, and that league is instead prepping its own digital video service, NFL Now, for launch in August. But Coyle said, “There’s been ongoing discussion and mutual interest. The timing just hasn’t been there yet, but conversation remains respectful.”

For now, 120 Sports also is pursuing a “less is more” strategy with regard to advertising sales that will provide the totality of company revenue until an additional subscription-based offering is introduced next year. Four initial sponsors have signed so far: Geico, Verizon Wireless, Nissan and Transamerica. Each was said to be a “premium level” sponsor, and Coyle said that while a fifth launch partner may be added, anything beyond that is not in the initial business plan.

“We’re trying to make sure the ad inventory is not out of line with a great content experience,” he said. “If we get too heavy with ads, we run the risk of turning people off.”

Silver Chalice is co-selling the inventory along with Sports Illustrated and its parent, Time Inc., which has made 120 Sports a core part of a larger digital transformation for Sports Illustrated. The venerable sports title last week also debuted a new, responsive-design website and is prepping a mobile-focused daily fantasy game to debut this week.

SI will be getting the traffic from 120 Sports as part of its reporting for monthly comScore metrics reports, but there have been no publicly delineated audience goals.

“We’ll be very happy if in six months the brand has become well known, out there in the sports media landscape, and usage is part of fans’ daily consumption,” said Jim DeLorenzo, SI Digital vice president and general manager.

120 Sports occupies a unique position as the only multisports content network, either linear or digital, that is also owned by many of the same properties it covers. Company executives, however, vowed they will be pulling few punches.

“We have three rules,” said Andre Mika, 120 Sports senior vice president of programming and production. “Don’t take shots at commissioners, know the facts and don’t jump the gun.”

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