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Volume 21 No. 2

Leagues and Governing Bodies

On Oct. 13, the Boston Red Sox loaded the bases in the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. At the same time, the Washington Redskins were driving into Dallas Cowboys territory during the fourth quarter of “Sunday Night Football.”

The Red Sox-Tigers game was on Fox; the Redskins-Cowboys game was on NBC. But they were both all over Twitter, amassing more than 1.1 million combined tweets and tens of millions of total impressions, illustrating why the social media company has become one of the most talked about brands in sports media.

In addition to all the Twitter activity, both games’ TV viewership saw significant increases over the comparable games from last year, with “Sunday Night Football” logging more than 22 million viewers and Fox’s ALCS game averaging more than 8 million.

This is Twitter’s main selling point these days. Its executives, led by newly hired head of sports partnerships Geoff Reiss, have met with nearly every sports league over the past couple of weeks with the promise that Twitter activity boosts TV ratings.

“When you get people to tweet about your show, the ratings will go up,” said Omid Ashtari, Twitter’s head of sports and entertainment, speaking earlier this month at SportsBusiness Journal’s Sports Marketing Symposium in New York.

Twitter’s recent high-profile deal with Nielsen to create a social media-influenced set of TV ratings seeks to further the notion that Twitter can help the traditional business of television. Some league and TV network executives, however, aren’t so sure.

“There are a lot of reasons somebody may be watching something, or tweeting something, and it might be a bit of a leap to immediately connect the two,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media president and chief executive. “And while it may be often true that somebody tweeting about a show is watching, it’s not necessarily so. I think the main goal needs to be finding the right way to really measure true engagement across each platform.”

That hesitancy has not stopped leagues, including MLB, from cutting deals with Twitter, which is preparing an initial public offering. Leagues may not know if Twitter actually boosts TV ratings, but they are eager to be part of the Twitter conversations occurring around their games.

Twitter executives like to cite a stat that says sports accounts for 1 percent of TV programming but makes up more than half of Twitter conversations — something that was evident as Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz hit a grand slam to tie the ALCS game, and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III threw an end zone interception to seal the Cowboys’ win.

During even higher profile sports events, such as the Super Bowl, Final Four, or Game 7 of the NBA Finals or World Series, sports can represent nearly 90 percent of all TV-related tweets. The question is whether Twitter eventually will bring real media revenue to leagues, or whether the leagues will consider it more of a marketing expense.

“For us right now, it’s about managing the conversation and creating the national conversation around hockey so fans can better understand what’s going on around the league,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer. “Just because there’s not real revenue today doesn’t mean that we don’t think there will be.”

It’s clear that executives in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters are bullish about using sports to grow their business. The popularity of sports is why the company signed a large-scale deal last month with the NFL worth an undisclosed, low-eight-figure sum. The deal embeds football highlights, fantasy content and other material into the microblogging site and allows the league to partner on Twitter’s new Amplify advertising platform. Existing league sponsors Verizon and McDonald’s have signed on as advertisers in the venture.

For Twitter, these types of partnerships are natural, though plenty of others won’t come with nearly the type of ad dollars connected to the NFL’s effort. The company has sought to position itself as a trusted ally to the television, sports and entertainment industries.

For leagues, these deals aren’t strictly about the content — at least not yet. Leagues are experimenting with the platform more as a marketing opportunity than as a place where they can extract rights fees. Leagues like the idea of reaching casual fans through Twitter, and they are curious to see if Twitter’s claim that it can help drive TV ratings is accurate.

Twitter uses a Nielsen study from August that found 29 percent of 221 broadcast shows, across various genres, saw significant lift in their live ratings from heightened Twitter activity. The research has resonated with leagues that see revenue potential down the line.

The NFL sees new partner Twitter driving both awareness and consumption.
“We think it ultimately not only drives incremental engagement and consumption, it will drive incremental awareness for our content, will drive incremental tune-in for our games,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL senior vice president of media strategy and development. “There’s a lot of good trends there to think that this is all additive from a second-screen experience about driving content to all those other places and back to NFL Mobile on a handset, which is another key area for us. We think this hopefully builds value for all our sets of [media] rights and drives overall consumption around NFL content.”

The NFL signed its Twitter deal for one season, giving the league an opportunity to experiment and evaluate. But given the league’s massive shadow upon the rest of the sports industry, its Twitter experimentation is being watched closely, particularly by its network and corporate partners.

“This [NFL] deal is another step forward with how [Twitter is] going to get involved with sports,” said Blaise D’Sylva, Anheuser-Busch vice president of media, sports and entertainment marketing. “It’s only going to grow.”

The recent flurry of activity from Twitter follows a similar push last spring, when it debuted Amplify. Among the initial, sports-related partners of Amplify were ESPN, the NBA, Turner Sports, MLB Advanced Media, the PGA Tour, Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated parent Time Inc.

“You have to understand the power of [Twitter] and its correlation to live events,” said Adam Zimmerman, marketing president at CSE. “TV plus social is better. It is a part of how people are engaging with content.”

Bowman said MLBAM’s work with Amplify has been successful so far. On several occasions, baseball experimented with streaming live games inside of Twitter, such as the Futures Game during All-Star break. “What we’re doing is trying to build engagement as opposed to being a direct economic thing, where we’re trying to get fans to click and buy something,” he said.

Twitter and the sports leagues believe the launch of a service like Amplify creates advertising opportunities on Twitter and helps leagues figure out how to generate meaningful revenue through social media.

“I used to joke around that monetizing social is to be akin to splitting the atom in its difficulty. I can tell you that’s no longer the case,” said Melissa Brenner, the NBA’s senior vice president of marketing. “Partners are specifically asking to activate our audience to reach their consumers. Increasingly, it’s a viable means for us to include our marketing partners and grow our revenue collectively for the NBA as a league and our teams and players.”

This marks a change from when the NBA first started working with Twitter, in 2009, Brenner said. That’s when the league treated Twitter as an opportunity to get people to tune in to close games.

“What we found is that through Twitter it’s not just tune in, but it’s also about telling players’ stories both on and off the court,” she said. “We’re finding all these creative ways where you could engage fans beyond tune-in.”

More similar Twitter-league partnerships are expected to soon arrive. The NHL is talking to the company about developing further ways to push national conversation around hockey, which traditionally has been very regional in its fandom. More specifically, the league and corporate partner Coors are working on social media executions for the coming debut of the Coors Light Stadium Series of outdoor games.

“Our partners and sponsors are looking for a social media play that can help drive a conversation around those platforms,” said the NHL’s Collins. “Sometimes they look to us for that and we can provide it. Sometimes they want to provide it and use their own resources to drive a specific program they have.”

The NFL’s new deal with Twitter isn’t causing the same level of angst among TV networks as the league’s extensive content deal with Verizon earlier this year or the launch of NFL RedZone four years ago.

But network executives privately express annoyance over the Twitter agreement, which allows the league to tweet game highlights from its handle throughout the week but not during network telecasts. Network executives maintain that this is another example of the NFL further slicing and dicing content for more revenue and makes them more conscious of protecting their billion-dollar investments in NFL TV rights.

Adding to the irritation is that the NFL restricts how the networks can use Twitter on telecasts. Late last season, the league told networks that they could not feature Twitter’s bird symbol to promote players or announcer Twitter handles during games. The league reasoned that promoting tweets was an in-game sponsorship that is not allowed, sources said.

“The reality is that the NFL is so strong they don’t have to kowtow to their media partners,” said industry consultant Ed Desser, president of Desser Sports Media. “They can do what they want. Unless somebody is going to get so upset about it that they’re not going to be able to bid for rights next time around, their reaction is understandable.”

Network executives do not view the NFL’s Twitter deal when taken by itself as something that will hurt their business or viewership. Rather, they see the Twitter deal combined with the availability of in-game highlights on and the Verizon deal as having the potential to dilute the TV product.

“The real premium value of the games to the networks right now is that they’re the best trick that the network has to introduce new shows,” said former NFL executive Frank Hawkins, who is a founding partner of media adviser Scalar Partners. “At some point, you make it too easy to view the NFL in bites and that value is going to erode.”

NFL executives acknowledge the complaints, but they point to the league’s strong TV ratings as evidence that these deals complement the broadcasts. Through the first four weeks of the current NFL season, Fox and NFL Network are reporting solid viewership gains, while CBS and ESPN are relatively flat. NBC’s numbers are down for “Sunday Night Football,” which was broadcast television’s highest-rated prime-time series the past two years.

“Over the last three or four years, we started to do in-progress highlights. Three or four years ago, we did the RedZone. These were all things that gave some angst to the broadcasters,” said Hans Schroeder, the league’s senior vice president of media strategy and development. “We look at all the metrics as they continue to evolve. As we try new distribution on new platforms, we’re mindful of the core business and want to see ratings growth.”

The NBA is poised to become the first major U.S.-based sports league to allow its games to be streamed live locally.

The league is finalizing TV Everywhere deals with Fox Sports Media Group and NBC Sports Group, the country’s two biggest owners of regional sports networks. Other RSNs, such as Root Sports, MSG, Time Warner Cable Sports, and Altitude Sports and Entertainment, are expected to offer live in-market streaming later this season.

The agreements break a six-year logjam that prevented viewers from watching their hometown teams on their computers or handsets locally. The frustrating negotiations also caused industry executives to question the viability of such a service, even as national TV channels were profiting from their own streaming services.

Now, the financial viability of live local streams will be tested, starting soon after the NBA opens its season later this month. The deals will allow people who subscribe to a distributor that carries Fox Sports Net or Comcast SportsNet to log in and watch their local teams’ games via broadband or mobile.

Fox has deals with 16 NBA teams; Comcast has deals with eight teams.

MLB and the NHL have yet to cut deals that allow for live in-market streaming.

“It is not going to roll out at one time for everyone,” said Bill Koenig, executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel for the NBA. “My sense is that Fox, from a technical standpoint, is further along. The good news is that I think it will happen in a significant way this year.”

The streaming deals run through the 2015-16 season, ending at the same time as the NBA’s linear TV deals.

The deals came about after the NBA changed course on two contentious points, paving the way for an agreement. First, the NBA relaxed demands to charge RSNs a per-game fee for rights to stream the games. The NBA had offered to sell the rights to RSNs for around $3,500 per game in each market, a price RSN executives complained was much too high and a reason they used for why local streaming hadn’t launched.

For years, RSNs had countered that they believe they already had paid a hefty rights fee to carry games on linear TV, and they felt an additional rate for streaming rights was excessive.

In the past few weeks, however, the NBA dropped its demand for a per-game fee — to zero, in order to get the local streaming services up and running.

“We did eliminate that charge,” Koenig said, adding that the fee was not the chief issue standing in the way. “We have gotten a lot smarter about authentication.”

The NBA also backed away from its position about where the streamed games should be housed.

Fox will make its games available to distributors with whom it has cut TV Everywhere deals, including Comcast, AT&T U-verse and Suddenlink, via its Fox Sports Go video player. Distributors like DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Dish Network haven’t cut TV Everywhere deals with Fox to carry these games yet.

Similarly, NBC Sports Group will make its games available to both distributors and its RSNs, as well.

Games will not be housed on team sites or league sites, a key factor in getting the RSNs to agree to a deal. Originally, teams wanted to provide the games on their sites. Sources said Comcast, in particular, balked at giving teams access to authenticated subscriber information.

Team sites will be able to promote and link to the games. Those links will take users to the RSN’s page or the Fox Sports Go app, where the viewers will be authenticated as current cable subscribers and will be able to watch the games at no extra cost.

For the NBA, it came down to changing its terms in order to jump-start a new, potentially lucrative service that has been languishing for the past six years. The league had been testing the viability of local streaming off and on, but with tepid results. One 2009 streaming test in Portland had only 500 people pay $3.99 to watch the Trail Blazers’ opening-night game against Houston. Another test in Philadelphia brought similarly small numbers.

When the CEO of Viacom-owned MMA promotion Bellator heard that Quentin “Rampage” Jackson was looking for a place to jump-start a career that was fading in the UFC, he ran the idea past Kevin Kay, the Spike Network president who had seen firsthand the role Jackson played in the UFC’s rise.

Known by the broader audience for his role in “The A-Team” and the requisite run across the late-night talk circuit, Jackson could instantly bring the sort of star power yet unseen in Bellator, which is in its first year on Spike. But the only way to land him would be to offer the upside from a pay-per-view, something Kay and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney had discussed as part of a long-term plan, but neither expected to contemplate this soon.

Bellator has former UFC stars Quentin “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz fighting Nov. 2.
Kay knew what he wanted to do as soon as he heard the name. Bellator makes its pay-per-view debut Nov. 2, with a card headlined by Jackson against another resurrected UFC star, Tito Ortiz, at 13,500-seat Long Beach Arena.

“Who says no to Rampage Jackson?” Kay said, flashing back to a span when Jackson drove PPV sales for the UFC and ratings for Spike. “He’s not just a great fighter. He has crossed over into the mainstream. … Rampage is on TMZ, for better or worse. You’ve got a name who is worthy of pay-per-view. Now, who is he going to fight?”

For that, Bellator turned to another familiar face from the UFC, Ortiz, who retired last year and underwent ACL surgery in May.

Both fighters were attracted to Bellator for similar reasons. They got pay-per-view upside that they wouldn’t see in the UFC anymore. But Kay and Rebney said both also were attracted by what Viacom could do for them as they segue out of MMA.

Spike will promote the PPV with a three-episode reality show “Rampage4Real,” which debuted Thursday night. It will consider a second, 10-episode run of the show next year, outside of any fight promotion. Kay also got Jackson a meeting with Paramount Film Group President Adam Goodman and connected him with a writer to help with the development of a script.

Both Jackson and Ortiz signed to perform on TNA Impact Wrestling, which also airs on Spike. Ortiz’s deal also includes promotion of his apparel company, Punishment Athletics, which will get logo placement on the cage mat and 30-second spots during Bellator airings on Spike.

“There are pieces to this pie that are bigger for these guys than the stand-alone issue of pay-per-view,” Rebney said. “They get all these benefits they were never able to leverage previously. We help them build the Tito and Rampage brands up, and they’ll help me build up Bellator.”

This will be Spike’s first full-on entry in marketing pay-per-views. It is diving in with a push that includes the blanketing you’d expect on Spike and from distributors such as DirecTV, but also promotion across Viacom channels MTV, Comedy Central, BET and VH1, as well as ads in sports programming that fits the young, male MMA demo, including ESPN’s Nov. 1 NBA doubleheader featuring Heat-Nets and Lakers-Spurs, along with “Monday Night Football.”

“It’s on our dime at this point, and that makes a little difference,” Kay said. “We helped the UFC promote their pay-per-views. But they owned them and they made all the money, so this is a very different opportunity for Bellator and Viacom to get some of the proceeds. That [UFC deal] was fine. But it’s part of the reason we’re trying to change the equation here.”

Along with the TV buys, Bellator will run radio spots in NFL and college football, digital ads on CBS Sports and Bleacher Report and a print integration that will put the faces of Jackson, Ortiz and co-feature opponents Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler on the front of the USA Today sports page the day before the fight.

Handicapping the audience Bellator can expect for the pay-per-view, which costs $35 to $45, is difficult. Jackson headlined three UFC pay-per-views that reportedly generated upward of 500,000 buys in 2010 and 2011, but he has lost his last three fights. Ortiz has headlined once since 2009. Though up, Bellator’s average audience for its Spike shows hovers between 650,000 and 700,000 viewers.

The NFL is requiring all league stadiums to meet newly crafted minimum Wi-Fi and cellular standards by the end of the 2014 season, the latest move by America’s top sport to improve the in-game experience.

Owners were informed of the new requirements at their meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The standards will push stadiums to ensure minimum capacity levels for concurrent downloads, uploads or browsing, while setting similar thresholds for phone calls and texting.

A league official declined to divulge any specifics on the new standards — such as, for example, how many fans would be able to simultaneously upload a comment to Twitter or download videos.

“We put minimum standards and metrics in place so not only do clubs know how our Wi-Fi is performing and to hold [cellular] carriers accountable, but also [it gives] us analytics for what our fans are doing, which leads us to more marketing,” said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer.

Shoddy to nonexistent Wi-Fi along with sporadic phone coverage plagues NFL stadiums and other sporting venues. These challenges become even greater as fans’ capabilities with technology continue to increase. The task for the leagues is to offer to fans in-stadium the same technological connectivity they enjoy at home.

Among other leagues, MLB Advanced Media hired Qualcomm more than a year ago to survey the technological capacities of its teams’ stadiums and help develop a plan to increase wireless connectivity across the sport. Six ballparks have been upgraded to date, with the other 24 to be finished by the end of the 2014 season.

“The interesting thing is that as this effort has developed, the traffic patterns among our fans has been less about our pushing data in to them — highlights and so forth — and increasingly about their pushing data out in terms of photo sharing, tweeting and activities like that,” said Bob Bowman, MLBAM president and chief executive. “The usage patterns have continued to evolve, and as they have, the goal is to be ready not for now but for five years from now.”

NBA teams do not have standards similar to what the NFL is putting into effect, but Michael Gliedman, NBA senior vice president and chief information officer, said elements of technology are regularly discussed. “As a standard practice,” he said, “we regularly consult with all NBA teams and venues on their Wi-Fi and DAS [distributed antenna system] arrangements, including review of agreements, interfacing with vendors and carriers, and sharing best practices across the league.”

The NFL, because of its larger crowds compared with other leagues, faces an especially high hurdle. Large numbers of people often overload Wi-Fi systems, and the fix is expensive, usually a mid-seven-figure sum for an NFL venue. Some teams have invested in the upgrade, but many have not. Often the stadiums are municipally owned and there are other prime tenants, so the investing is challenging.

The NFL expects that by implementing the standards, teams in municipally owned stadiums will be able to use those benchmarks as leverage in talks over upgrading Wi-Fi, McKenna-Doyle said. For example, she said, the Houston Texans are engaged in lease talks with Reliant Stadium owner Harris County, and Wi-Fi capability is an issue.

“The standards just came out and our team is just starting to review them,” said Texans President Jamey Rootes via email, responding to a query of whether he would discuss how the new standards fit into the lease talks.

At least 20 of the league’s 31 stadiums (the New York Jets and Giants share a venue) have Wi-Fi in their bowls, up from six in 2011, McKenna-Doyle said. Not all of those stadiums, however, would meet the new minimum standards, and that also means 11 stadiums are not remotely close.

The NFL is planning conference calls soon with each team to go over what is expected, McKenna-Doyle said.

The Wi-Fi and cellular requirements carry no penalties for noncompliance. Several teams have put off upgrades because of the poor condition of their stadiums and hopes for replacement venues; others are moving into new buildings over the next few years. Others are locked in long-term deals with Wi-Fi providers that now may need renegotiating.

Asked about teams that did not meet the new standards in the 15-month time frame, McKenna-Doyle replied, “If they don’t do this, there will be poor-performing ticket sales. They will suffer enough consequences not doing it.”

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.