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Volume 21 No. 1


Startup youth sports programmer The Whistle has signed a deal in which the PGA Tour will take a minority equity interest in the emerging company.

The PGA Tour also will participate in a content and distribution deal with The Whistle, supplying archival content as well as assisting in the development of new programming. Content will be distributed across both The Whistle’s various platforms and PGA Tour-owned outlets.

The Whistle’s golf content will include a focus on the off-course lives of top players.
The Whistle holds similar pacts with the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Soccer, IndyCar Entertainment and the Harlem Globetrotters, among others. But the PGA Tour’s involvement goes further, as it will join an investor group that includes the NFL, former MLB President Bob DuPuy, Clear Channel Communications Chief Executive Bob Pittman, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

“We have found a real champion in the tour in what we’re doing,” said Jeff Urban, The Whistle co-founder and chief marketing officer. “This really allows us to align in a different, deeper way than just being a content producer and distributor. This is now two pretty formidable leagues stepping up and saying they want a piece of the company.”

For the PGA Tour, The Whistle marks another step in its transition toward a younger player and fan base. Golf traditionally has drawn one of the older fan followings among major U.S. sports leagues, but an emerging talent base of star players younger than 25 — including Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and John Huh — has given the sport a jolt of youthful energy, something that will be prominently featured in golf-related content on The Whistle.

Golf programming on The Whistle will focus heavily on the off-course lives of top players in addition to tournament-related features. The Whistle and the tour will work on jointly promoting the new material across their platforms.
“This is such a good alignment of objectives for us,” said Paul Johnson, PGA Tour senior vice president of strategic development, digital media and entertainment. “We all know the value of reaching the youth audience. We’ve been tracking The Whistle for some time, and were early believers in what they’re doing and their business plan, and we now see big opportunity going forward together.”

The Whistle has eschewed a traditional TV-focused model in favor of a more diverse approach that includes online, mobile and social media, content distributed through video game consoles and occasional TV airings on the NBC Sports Network.

John Ourand
At first, it felt like a gimmick when Fox Sports went to the Cotton Bowl’s first commercial break during its Jan. 4 telecast.

Rather than going to a traditional commercial break, Fox went to a “double box.” It put live video from the stadium — shots of cheerleaders, bands, coaches, etc. — in a small box in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. In a larger box that took up about two-thirds of the screen, GM ran a traditional 30-second ad. GM’s logo and sponsor message ran as a “skin” along the bottom of the screen. Allstate, Subway and Dr Pepper also ran commercials in that format during the first-quarter ad break, while Fox featured four different advertisers in the same format during a break in the second quarter.

The idea is to keep fans engaged during commercial breaks. With countless options and the presence of second screens, networks and advertisers always are looking for ways to keep viewers’ interest during ad breaks. In the past, several networks have used a similar format during NASCAR races when there are not natural breaks in the action. But this marked the first time a network used the double-box format when a sports event went to a timeout.

The double-box format gives the sponsor most of the real estate but keeps live video from the event visible.
That’s one of the reasons why Fox’s Cotton Bowl effort felt like a gimmick, at least initially. Video from the stadium during timeouts is not compelling. Viewers want to see the NASCAR race during double-box commercials. But a timeout during a football game? That’s boring.

While it took time to get used to the concept, the more I talked to advertising executives last week, the more I became convinced that this double-box feature is the future of TV advertising, even during football games.

Fox Sports executives described the Cotton Bowl as an experiment and said they won’t be able to determine its success until they see minute-by-minute TV ratings from Nielsen. Fox will use it again for two or three commercial breaks during a UFC telecast Jan. 26 and at times during the upcoming NASCAR season. Advertisers are interested, and Fox plans to talk with MLB and the NFL to gauge interest in rolling it out during their games, too.

“We’re bullish on the future of this,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research and programming. “The impetus for us to do this is because we are always looking to enhance the value of the advertising and viewing experience.”

When I discussed the Fox ads on Twitter during the Cotton Bowl, most seemed to like it. The main complaint dealt with Fox’s video, which was not compelling enough to keep viewers from channel surfing.

That’s where this format gets tricky. ESPN has used it during some of its motorsports coverage since 2005, and its executives say their research shows that video that is too compelling could take the viewers’ focus away from the ads.

“There is a cognitive load that people are able to process,” said Barbara Singer, ESPN’s vice president of advertiser insights and research. “You have to be careful how much you’re putting in front of them.”

Networks and advertisers will become savvier about tailoring their messages to this new format. Advertisers are interested in anything that keeps viewers from channel surfing, even if it means giving up some of the screen. To date, advertisers are paying the same rate in a double-box format, though that could change.

Fox started testing the double-box format in the spring of 2011, showing picture-in-picture commercials during the final three NASCAR races on its schedule that season.

Afterward, Fox Sports commissioned research from Innerscope that showed that the double-box commercial breaks ranked 18 percent higher on engagement than full-screen ads. Fox found that 84 percent of viewers liked the double-box ad format better than the traditional full-screen ads.

“We’re finding that it’s a more engaging and effective way to show commercials,” Wanger said. “The process is evolving. We are learning as we go. There’s a wide open canvas for what we can do.”

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

Tennis Channel hired veteran ad executive Larry Novenstern to a new role as vice president of integrated partnerships.
Novenstern is based in New York and reports to Gary Herman, the network’s senior vice president of advertising. He started Dec. 10.

“Being able to get back into sports full time again was a major attraction to me,” Novenstern said.

Tennis Channel created the position as a way to bring new high-profile advertisers into Tennis Channel’s stable. The network believes Novenstern has the career background to achieve that goal, while giving the network access to the senior levels of advertising agencies.

Novenstern said he’s most excited about helping to build brands’ sports sponsorships around Tennis Channel. He said his history of building programs around sports is a main reason why he took the job.

“I’m not here to sell you something. I’m here to help you build your brand,” Novenstern said, pointing to his work with Visa, where he helped set up the company’s halftime sponsorship on Fox’s NFL telecasts in 1996. Novenstern also brokered Mountain Dew’s first action sports investment with the X Games.

During his career, Novenstern has held top jobs at Optimedia U.S. and Deutsch Inc., and was one of the most visible ad buyers in sports media.

He left Optimedia U.S. in 2010 and picked up several consulting gigs. MasterCard, for example, hired him to help on the company’s MLB and PGA Tour sponsorships. Immediately before joining Tennis Channel, Novenstern was senior vice president, U.S. media director, at Orion Trading.

Tennis Channel launched in 2003 and is in around 34 million homes, but it has had trouble increasing its distribution. It’s in the middle of a highly charged legal battle with Comcast, which carries the channel on its poorly distributed sports and entertainment tier.

But Novenstern said the channel’s viewership demos, which typically are more affluent than other networks, should outweigh any distribution concerns for potential sponsors.

“From an audience standpoint, there’s no waste at Tennis Channel,” he said. “If you buy a spot on ‘Monday Night Football’ or ‘Sunday Night Football,’ it’s more of a buckshot approach.”

Wade Martin, who spent the last decade leading the Dew Tour, is leaving NBC Sports.

The president of Alli Sports, NBC’s action sports group, is taking a job with Powdr Corp. He will be the CEO of a new division known as Powdr Enterprises that will be focused on building an event, sponsorship and media business around the company’s nine mountain resorts, Woodward Camps and Outside Television network.

Eric Grilly, NBC Sports regional sports group executive vice president and chief digital officer, is expected to succeed Martin as president and CEO of Alli. An announcement is forthcoming, sources said.

Martin will oversee event sponsorship and media business for a new division of mountain resort owner Powdr Corp.
Photo by: JOHN DUNN
Grilly will report to Rob Simmelkjaer, NBC Sports Ventures senior vice president. Martin will stay with the company for three to five months to assist in the transition.

“It’s hard to leave the team and the people I work with, but I’m really excited about starting over again,” said Martin, who joined NBC Sports in 2003 to start the Dew Tour. “I really like starting at zero and being close to the action, and I’ve got a unique opportunity to try and do that again.”

Martin, 42, has been one of the most influential figures in action sports events and entertainment over the last decade. He joined NBC Sports in 2003 as its general manager. Just 32 years old and a former college tennis player from Michigan State, he wasn’t an obvious candidate to build a new emerging sports property, but he previously worked on Octagon’s Gravity Games and had a reputation as a bright operator adept at earning trust and bridging differences that divided the opinionated and fractious action sports community.

The network tasked him with creating a series of action sports events where competitors collected points over four or five events and the athlete with the most points was crowned champion. The idea became the foundation of the Dew Tour, which debuted with five summer stops in 2005.

The tour expanded to include three winter stops in 2008. That same year, Martin created the Alliance of Action Sports — or Alli, as the organization became known — to serve as an umbrella company that not only could run the Dew Tour but also manage other properties.

Alli Sports last year signed a four-year renewal with Mountain Dew that will keep the brand as the title sponsor of the Dew Tour through 2015. The deal, which was valued at more than $8 million a year, resulted in the series contracting from seven stops around the country to three stops last year. Alli also struck its partnerships with Red Bull and Ford last year.

Martin said it was the company’s most financially successful year and added that he expects it to do even better in 2013.

Fuse partner Issa Sawabini, who negotiated the Mountain Dew extension, called Martin a visionary in the action sports event and entertainment business.

“It was his vision and hard work and perseverance to create the Dew Tour, and his ability to recognize and reinvent it deserves extra credit,” Sawabini said. “It’s hard to know if the property would look the way it does or even exist without him.”

At Powdr Enterprises, Martin will be designing events and selling sponsorships that allow brands to reach the 3.1 million visitors to Powdr’s mountain resorts, the thousands of campers that Woodward hosts, and the 61 million viewers who watch Outside Television. Powdr and NBC Sports also agreed to a three-year strategic partnership that could see events Martin creates air on NBC networks.

“The ski resort business is our passion, but there needs to be one eye toward the future, and our marketing and communications divisions’ evolution has led me to believe that events and licensing and media is an area we should be focused on,” said Powdr Corp. CEO John Cumming. “It’s clear to me that there’s a way for each division to benefit from the other, and Wade’s the obvious person to come and help us do that. He’s a good entrepreneur.”