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Volume 21 No. 1


A little more than a year and a half after it formally launched, Back9 Network signed its first distribution deal with DirecTV.

The satellite operator will carry the “golf lifestyle” channel on its digital basic tier, which has nearly 20 million subscribers, starting Sept. 29, network officials said.

Back9 Network executives would not disclose the channel’s license fee or advertising agreements that are part of the long-term deal it signed with DirecTV. But the channel’s top executives clearly are relieved to complete their first carriage deal with a national satellite operator.

CFO Charles Cox handled negotiations for the network; DirecTV chief content officer Dan York handled negotiations for the satellite distributor.

“This has been a long time coming,” said the channel’s president, Carlos Silva, who added that the network is in discussions with all the other big pay-TV providers. “Now we’ll do what any young network has to do: put our heads down and try to get these other deals done.”

DirecTV will launch Back9 Network on channel 262, alongside channels like AMC, A&E, FX and Discovery Health. 

Silva said the channel has no live rights and does not plan to compete for them as they come up. It will launch with 10 prime-time series, as well as live morning, midday and evening shows that will be produced from its Hartford, Conn., studios.

“We’re not in the live sports business,” Silva said. “We own our own programming.”

Planned shows include “The Ahmad Rashad Show,” where the host hangs out with sports and entertainment celebrities; “Ball Hogs,” about people who search ponds and lakes for lost golf balls; and “Golf Treasures,” which follow golf collectors as they try to find golf memorabilia.

All three of these shows will be 30 minutes.

“Nobody’s tapping into this marketplace,” Silva said. “These types of shows have advertising opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere.”

“Sunday night is football night” on NBC. “It all comes down to Monday night” on ESPN.

Now, CBS is marketing its slate of Thursday night games with “Football starts here.” The network launched its campaign last week with a 30-second promo that ran throughout CBS’s highly rated prime-time schedule.

“This is the biggest campaign we’ve ever done in terms of reach,” said George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group, which developed the creative. “It underscores our commitment to the Thursday night package.”

The effort will run across CBS properties, including TV, radio, online and outdoor. Officials would not say how much CBS has invested in it. For the beginning of the campaign, the network is not buying time outside of CBS properties — though executives said that may change.

The campaign targets casual fans by drawing upon CBS’s prime-time stars such as Lucy Liu (top) but features broadcast talent as well including Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. 
Photo by: CBS SPORTS

The campaign’s first ad combines CBS’s prime-time stars, like Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”), LL Cool J (“NCIS: Los Angeles”) and Pauley Perrette (“NCIS”) with NFL highlights of players like Peyton Manning, Jamaal Charles and Calvin Johnson. It opens with a voice-over stating, “Everyone at CBS is excited about Thursday nights this fall.”

“Our campaign is not just about celebrating ‘Thursday Night Football,’ but ‘eventizing it,’” Schweitzer said. “We want to make Thursday night an event on CBS. The whole CBS family is involved.”

CBS has opted initially to focus more on its prime-time stars rather than NFL stars to get the message in front of casual fans.

“The fantasy player, the hard-core fan — they are going to be there,” Schweitzer said. “Our key is to make ‘Thursday Night Football’ an event that people want to watch because people are talking about it and celebrating it together.”

The 30-second ad involves a lot of quick shots with CBS talent walking toward the camera. Some of them, like Perrette and Chris O’Donnell (“NCIS: Los Angeles”), rip off their coats to reveal “Thursday Night Football” T-shirts.

Others, such as Mark Harmon (“NCIS”) and Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”), sport eye black with the words “Thurs Night.”

CBS’s broadcast talent, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, take a starring turn toward the end of the commercial. When Nantz rips off his suit coat, instead of wearing a “Thursday Night Football” T-shirt, he is wearing another suit coat. Simms says, “Showoff.”

In February, CBS agreed to pay $275 million to win the rights to broadcast an eight-game package. The league holds a one-year option on the deal.

Deal terms have CBS producing the Thursday night package of games for both CBS and NFL Network. In fact, the first commercial ends with a voice-over saying, “‘Thursday Night Football’ comes to NFL Network and CBS.”

At the beginning of September, CBS’s campaign will switch to focus on specific matchups. CBS’s first Thursday night game is Steelers-Ravens on Sept. 11.

Sports Illustrated on Tuesday will introduce a reconstructed website for both desktop and mobile platforms, the latest and perhaps most dramatic step in a digitally focused transformation of the sports media brand.

The tile-based system, nearly a year in development, expands on design concepts that debuted last year with the launch of Peter King’s, and continued with other new SI products such as SI Edge and Planet Futbol. The new format allows for substantial flexibility based on news events and editorial direction, and will freely incorporate text, photos, video and audio through a completely rebuilt content management system. A responsive design, steadily becoming more common in digital sports media, allows for a unified template that automatically rescales based on the size of the screen.

The tile-based system allows for more flexibility across all platforms.
“We needed to break out of the traditional, grid-based system,” said Paul Fichtenbaum, Time Inc. Sports Group editor. “Everything is movable and completely open-ended, and the only limitations we now have are really the creativity of the editors and producers.”

The redesign brings two other substantial changes in the SI operation. Both the mobile and desktop sites will operate under the core Sports Illustrated brand name as it de-emphasizes the brand and seeks to present itself as a single content operation that operates across all platforms. The company has also partnered with California-based TopLine Game Labs to create a daily fantasy game for baseball and football that will make its debut June 30.

Sports Illustrated has not been a significant player in the fantasy sports industry for several years, but through this effort the company seeks to capitalize on one of the fastest-growing segments of the space. In doing so, it is also resurrecting the FanNation brand it purchased in 2007 but that has laid essentially dormant in recent years. The FanNation daily fantasy game will be available in both free and pay formats.

“Increasingly, fans want to play on mobile and in these quicker, daily formats, and that’s where we’re placing our energies for fantasy,” Fichtenbaum said.

The SI digital relaunch will also incorporate the forthcoming 120 Sports digital operation, of which SI is a core partner. Tiles within the new site will feature video from the short-form digital network, which also includes MLB Advanced Media, the NHL and Silver Chalice.

Launch sponsors will be Canon, Black Rock and New Balance. Company executives, led by Publisher Brendan Ripp, will undertake a two-week roadshow in late July to pitch the new platform to current and prospective advertisers.

Leading the redesign effort has been Jim DeLorenzo, SI Digital vice president and general manager. DeLorenzo brought on more than a dozen additional programmers and coders to assist with the project and subsequent operations, part of a recent overall staffing increase that is approaching 40 when including editorial, sales and other departments.

“We’ve taken a really hard look at not only what our users want but how we operate internally, even down to where people on our team sit and work together,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s taken us a while to get to this point, but we think we have something optimized for us internally and [that] connects deeply with how fans now consume content.”

A couple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote that distributors have regained leverage from sports networks. 

I pointed to the problems regional sports networks are having in Houston, Los Angeles and Portland as evidence that cable and satellite operators have become more emboldened by these fights and more willing to push back on sports’ rate hikes. Pay-TV companies have more confidence that subscribers won’t drop their service if they refuse to carry some sports networks. For example, DirecTV says it hasn’t shed a significant number of subscribers by not carrying Pac-12 Networks, and Time Warner Cable’s business in Texas was not hurt by the fact that it didn’t carry Longhorn Network at the network’s launch.

To me, it feels like the early 2000s, when cable operators successfully kept team-owned RSNs from the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals from gaining broad distribution. That move kept other teams from exploring that route, at least for a couple of years.

But in the weeks since that column was published (SportsBusiness Journal, June 9-15 issue), several distribution executives have reached out to say that they disagree. 

It’s not so much a change in negotiating position. Rather, they say, leverage remains the same as it’s always been.

They remember those battles in Minneapolis and Kansas City, two markets that launched team-owned RSNs in 2003. But they also remember, around the same time, YES Network launching in 2002 and MASN launching in 2005.

Strategy varied by market and by team in 2003, just as it does in 2014, they said. Back then, it was easier to hold out in markets like Minneapolis and Kansas City than New York and Washington, D.C. Today, it’s easier to hold out with the Rockets than with the Lakers. 

None of the executives wanted to be quoted on the record, as they didn’t want their company PR staffs to know that they talk with the press. But all of them described the current market as one where cable and satellite operators have little leverage against good teams that have strong local followings. Cable and satellite operators also have little leverage during big events, such as the Olympics. In the late 1990s, NBC used Olympic programming to grow its cable channels, like USA Network.

The same scenario played out last summer, when CBS tried to get an increase in retransmission consent fees from Time Warner Cable. CBS went dark for about a month, and Time Warner Cable wound up losing 306,000 subscribers in the third quarter. One of the reasons customers switched was because of the threat of not being able to see regular-season NFL games. There are several examples like this where sports networks hold leverage. I am confident that SEC Network will have most of its major deals in place by its launch in August. 

A distribution executive with knowledge of the negotiations said some of the bigger companies, like Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, are pushing back on SEC Network’s demand to get full carriage outside of SEC territory. But I still sense a changing landscape in these negotiations. Cable and satellite executives are smarter about when to fight and when to back away because their viewership data is more sophisticated. They can use set-top box information to see — down to the minute — who’s watching and when.

“Viewership measurement allows [us] to predict exactly how many of its subscribers are at risk if a network is dropped,” another distribution executive wrote in an email. “I have been dropping nets for years, including one well-known niche sports net that cost the company five (yes, five) subs and another one that lost us 15 subs.”

I called industry media veteran Chris Bevilacqua to get his thoughts. He agreed that a “one size fits all” approach is not applicable because each market and each team is unique. But he pointed to a broader industry consolidation — Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, and AT&T buying DirecTV — that looks to be bad news for teams exploring what to do with their rights. With huge, multinational corporations (like RSN owners Comcast and News Corp.) negotiating with other huge corporations (like Comcast and AT&T) for local sports carriage, Bevilacqua believes the market for team-owned RSNs will shrink. It’s the same problem small, independent programmers have in the broader cable marketplace.  

“It will be more difficult for team-owned RSNs to execute over time because of that consolidation,” he said. “This is going to be the land of the giants going forward.” 

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