Apollo Global, one of several private-equity firms considering a bid for Disney's 22 RSNs, has "held early talks with LeBron James' media company, Uninterrupted, about bringing them on as a strategic partner," according to sources cited by Dylan Byers of NBC NEWS. Sources said that Apollo's talks with Uninterrupted have "focused on a strategic partnership deal that could see James contributing and advising on content for the networks." There has been "no talk of an ownership stake" for Uninterrupted. The 22 RSNs are "highly coveted properties at a time when sports and live events are the coin of the realm for linear television." The question is "what to do with those networks when the games aren't on." The talks with Uninterrupted "point to a possible solution" (BYERS MARKET, 11/8). Meanwhile, TMZ.com reported rappers LL Cool J and Ice Cube are "joining forces" to create a "powerful group looking to bid" on the 22 RSNs. Joining them in their bid is jewelry company Alex & Ani Founder Carolyn Rafaelian. Sources said that the group is also "in talks with other sports and cultural icons who are interested in participating in the bid (TMZ.com, 11/6).
LET THE BIDDING BEGIN: Disney today is beginning to accept bids for Fox-branded RSNs that it is selling, according to sources. These first rounds of bids will be submitted to Allen & Co., who is handling the sale along with JP Morgan Chase & Co., and meetings to discuss the opening bids will start as early as next week. Sources expect a deal to close in Q1 of next year and could fetch around $20B. Disney started sending the official bid book to prospective buyers four weeks ago. Up to 40 bidders have signed an NDA to look at the RSNs. Comcast, which owns eights RSNs, is not submitting a bid, sources said. Neither is Fox Sports, which has been described in some circles as a front-runner to buy back the RSNs. Fox Sports, which still is managing the RSNs through the sales process, still could be involved in the sales process down the road. A host of media companies, digital companies, individual teams and private equity groups have showed interest. Regulators have told Disney that it needs to divest the RSNs as a condition of its $71.3B acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets (John Ourand, Staff Writer).
The NBA and NBPA have "agreed to televise" the draft in which two captains will select their squads for the '19 All-Star Game in Charlotte, according to sources cited by Marc Stein of the N.Y. TIMES. Sources said that a firm date and specific format for the televised draft "has not yet been finalized, but Jan. 30 and 31 have emerged as two potential targets for a TNT broadcast." The format was "initially conceived with the full intention to televise the selections, but pushback from the union scuttled those plans" last year. The resistance from the NBPA was "largely tied to fears of embarrassing the players selected last, or putting captains in a position to upset current teammates by passing over them" (N.Y. TIMES, 11/8). In L.A., Tania Ganguli notes LeBron James after last year's All-Star Draft posted on Twitter that it "definitely should've been televised." He "doesn't buy the potential for awkwardness." James: "You got 24 of the best players in the world that's going to make the team. It doesn't matter if you're first or last, you're 24 of the best in the world at that point in time. I don't think it'll be bad" (L.A. TIMES, 11/8).
DRAFTING PARTNER: ESPN's Mike Golic said the NHL in the past has "had a ball" with a similar draft, as players were "mocking one another, having a good time." Golic: "That's what I hope they would do here" ("Golic & Wingo," ESPN Radio, 11/8). FS1's Cris Carter said the NFL and other pro sports "need to take a snapshot" of the NBA and its player draft ("First Things First," FS1, 11/8). ESPN's Jalen Rose said basketball "continues to be the sport to find a way to capture the fans and keep them interested when it’s not necessarily a meaningful game" ("Get Up!," ESPN, 11/8). The Athletic's Frank Isola said he is "more excited" for the draft than the actual game ("PTI," ESPN, 11/8). ESPN's Israel Gutierrez said the NBA is a “year late on this” but it will “play out pretty decently, I just don’t think it’ll be as dramatic. Players coming in will have a game plan" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 11/8). ESPN's Bomani Jones also said he does not "know how they’re actually going to make this work because the ‘petty’ will be on full alert.” Jones: "How many guys are going to suddenly have something to do that night just in case they are not the first person (picked)?" This could "actually turn out to be a ... disaster" ("High Noon," ESPN, 11/7).
Fox Sports, Univision and ESPN Deportes saw MLS regular-season viewership rise in ’18, while English-language games on ESPN/ESPN2 fell. The combo of Fox and FS1 had its best viewership yet since Fox Sports re-acquired MLS rights prior to the ’15 season. The Fox broadcast channel averaged 988,000 viewers for its games, up 59% with a major boost from Sounders-Atlanta United on July 15. The broadcast immediately followed the FIFA World Cup final and averaged 1.59 million viewers, the best figure for any MLS game ever on Fox Sports and best for any MLS match since ’04. That helped lift FS1, as the cable net saw viewership on its own decline 15% (148,000 vs. 175,000). Meanwhile, MLS viewership across Univision, UniMas and Univision Deportes was at its best levels yet, aided by a record 14 games alone on Univision. The nets combined to average 289,000 viewers, up from 244,000 last year and marking four straight seasons of growth. Spanish-language MLS games on ESPN Deportes also were at their highest levels since ’11. The net averaged 42,000 viewers, up from 24,000 last season. Across all U.S.-based networks, MLS regular-season games delivered 27.8 million gross viewers, up 6% from ’17. North of the border, TSN saw a 27% increase in MLS viewership, while French-language partner TVA was up 11%.
LOWEST ESPN AUDIENCE SINCE '14: ESPN and ESPN2 in ’18 had their lowest audience for MLS games since ’14, as the nets were unable to capitalize on or promote members of the USMNT in the World Cup with the team missing the event in Russia. The nets combined to averaged 241,000 viewers, down from 261,000 in ’17. Data does show that ESPN/ESPN are seeing nearly a 13% uptick to regular viewership when out-of-home numbers are factored in.
POSITIVE STEPS: MLS Senior VP/Media Seth Bacon said '18 was a “very positive story for us on the viewership front." Bacon: "We continue to see growth, and we continue to be bullish on how we’re engaging new fans and attracting new viewers across the U.S. and Canada.” Bacon said the league's viewership increase year-over-year is proof that “more people are sampling, watching and taking part in watching MLS across our broadcast partners.” As the league saw growth on Fox broadcasts linked to World Cup matches, Bacon said the league is continuing to work with its partners to find opportunities in their respective schedules to align MLS alongside other big soccer rights. In ’19, Fox will air the Women’s World Cup, while both Fox and Univision will broadcast the CONCACAF Gold Cup. “We work with (our broadcast partners) to experiment with new windows and identifying the best possible places to put our matches to maximize viewership,” Bacon said. “We’ll continue to put a real emphasis on that as we’re focused on continuing the narrative of growth in as many metrics as possible.”
DAZN Exec Chair John Skipper appeared at the Web Summit in Lisbon earlier this week, and his session "essentially focused on the global streaming entity" that he is "trying to build" during an interview with Jemele Hill, according to Ryan Glasspiegel of THE BIG LEAD. Skipper outlined DAZN's approach, saying, "We buy rights. We put them on the streaming platform. We focus on customer experience and we can do that’s advantageous because we know what people are watching. ... We know when someone’s engaged. We can then do things to make that experience better." He said TV networks "don’t really know how many people watched" any given broadcast. Skipper: "If you’re watching on cable or broadcast television, it is so anachronistic that it still relies upon Nielsen ratings, which are done on a sampling technology so that it infers that X number of people watched ... They don’t have any idea who in the house is watching." Skipper said when it comes to live rights procurement, "relationships," "decision-making" and a "desire to participate in the future" all play an important role. But he said the "most important thing is the writing of the check" because leagues "will give you their rights when you pull out your checkbook and you make a deal and you decide that you’re going to pay them." He said DAZN has the "ability to drive revenue by getting retention of subscribers, getting the money directly." But he noted the company will have to continue to "create a better business model so we can write a bigger check." Skipper said DAZN does "not have advertising in our subscription service right now, but we will." He said the OTT service "will not run 30-second ads in pods of 5-6 of those so [viewers] see the same car ad 14 times in a 3-hour game" and will "not interrupt games in a way that are unnatural, the way they do on television." Rather, he said DAZN will "figure out a way to integrate content into the production" (THEBIGLEAD.com, 11/7).
CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY: Skipper also appeared on the latest Recode Media podcast, with host Peter Kafka noting Skipper while at ESPN had a "nearly unlimited bag of money" and could "almost always outbid the competition if you wanted to." That meant ESPN "pretty much got every deal" it wanted. However, with DAZN, Skipper has to be "scrappier and ... can’t just show up and win." Skipper said, "We spent it wisely and appropriately, and effectively [at ESPN]. Now I have to be a little more creative." He added, "About $250 million was spent on Canelo Alvarez’s last three fights. I now have to find those people -- not a trivial marketing task -- and convince them that what they were paying $80 a pop for is much more effectively and economically purchased by getting a $10 subscription to DAZN." Skipper later said, "We are aggregating a large inventory of fight content. We are partners with Combate and Bellator and the World Boxing Championships so that you have a fairly ... if you’re a boxing fan, you get a steady diet of fights. I think the pay-per-view model was an excellent model for some number of people to make a lot of money for a while. It did end up choking off the interest in boxing because the biggest events of the sport were taken basically out of the view of most of the public and sold to people for $80 a piece" ("Recode Media with Peter Kafka," RECODE.net, 11/8).
Turner is planning several production wrinkles for its upcoming PPV telecast of “Capital One’s The Match: Tiger vs. Phil.” It plans to use drone coverage, predictive data and near real-time wagering odds during the Nov. 23 match, which will be available for $19.99. “We're going to change the way golf is produced on air,” Turner President David Levy said. “Our coverage of this event will incorporate a number of innovations for live golf that will be unlike anything fans of this sport have experienced.” Turner is partnering with ShotLink Intelligence for an on-screen application that will forecast certain outcomes, suggesting which golfer has a better chance of winning a given hole. At the completion of a hole, MGM Resorts Race & Sports Books will provide odds and money lines, among other information, based on Woods and Mickelson’s performance. Other planned production elements include: Woods, Mickelson and their caddies will be miked throughout the event and Toptracer will show the flight path for each shot. Additionally, DirecTV will carry a 4K version of the match. The golfers will be making side bets -- described as “side challenges” by company lawyers -- during the telecast. Woods and Mickelson will donate money, which is expected to be as much as $100,000 per bet, to the winning golfer’s charity of choice. Bets will range from who gets closest to the pin to longest drives.
NBC Sports Group has invested in several new initiatives to expand its coverage of horse racing, including signing a new six-year deal to broadcast the prestigious Royal Ascot meet. NBC also will broadcast the $16M Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January from Gulfstream Park, while NBCSN will air two major Kentucky Derby prep races -- the Louisiana Derby in March and the Arkansas Derby in April. Financial details were not disclosed, but NBC Sports Group President of Programming Jon Miller said the costs were "significant," including production and talent costs and rights fees. The new agreement with Ascot Racecourse will include at least four-and-a-half hours of coverage a day from the meet on Tuesday-Friday on NBCSN, with four hours on Saturday, the final day, on NBC. All coverage will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app. Miller said, "We now have three marquee events we can point to every year. We have the Derby in May; we have Ascot in late June; and we have the Breeders' Cup in early November." Miller said that Royal Ascot execs approached NBC about extending the agreement and details were finalized at last week’s Breeders' Cup. Ascot Chief Commercial Officer Juliet Slot in a statement praised the commitment NBC Sports has shown the meet “in terms of extensive on-course presentation, and talent on site,” over the past two years.
MORE HORSE POWER: NBC has steadily increased the number of hours it devotes to broadcasting horse racing. With these new agreements, NBC and NBCSN will broadcast 90 hours of the sport in '19, up from 23 hours in '11. The season will kick off with a 90-minute broadcast of the Pegasus World Cup. The network has aired the previous two runnings of the event, but the agreements have been on a year-to-year basis, Miller said. The deals to air the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby 13 expands NBC's "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series from four to six races in which horses are vying for a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
GOING INSIDE THE DERBY: As part of the deals, NBC Sports Group is partnering with Churchill Downs to produce a four-episode documentary featuring the people and stories behind the horses pointed to the Kentucky Derby. NBC will air four 30-minute episodes during the week of the Derby. The series is being produced by Churchill Downs Exec Producer of Broadcasting Keith Wetzler.
Monster Energy Supercross will not be back on Fox Sports' family of channels in '19, according to sources. The property's media rights expire after this year, and the sides did not reach an agreement to renew. Fox Sports has been airing Supercross races exclusively since '14, with most events aired on FS1. Property owner Feld Motor Sports has not yet announced the news or where the motorcycle racing series will switch to next. NBC Sports is seen as a top candidate because it has an extensive motorsports portfolio including NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA. There was no comment from Fox or Feld as of presstime.
The Ottawa Citizen yesterday said that it has "no intention of taking down" the Uber video of several Senators players being critical of their coaching staff, despite a "legal notice insisting leaving it online violates provincial privacy laws," according to Michelle McQuigge of the CP. The newspaper "flatly rejected the legal notice" from the team, saying that the video shot "surreptitiously by an Uber driver was circulating on social media when the paper decided to report on it." Editor-in-Chief Michelle Richardson also "countered allegations" that the footage of players "badmouthing the club and a member of its coaching staff violated their privacy under provincial law and did not contain information of public interest." The video has been "pulled from YouTube on the grounds that it was shot in secret" (CP, 11/7).