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Volume 21 No. 1



Ebersol and Zaslav working together again

One of the more interesting subplots of Discovery’s stunning bid to land Olympic rights in Europe through 2024 is the role Dick Ebersol had in advising Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav through the process.

The two are longtime friends; Zaslav calls Ebersol a mentor. They first worked together in 1989 at NBC. In the mid-1990s, Zaslav was responsible for convincing cable operators to increase their license fees for NBC’s cable channels as a way to help the network afford the Olympics’ price tag.

“In 1995, David became the most important new friend that I had, because he had to go out and get sub fees on cable for the Olympics,” Ebersol said. “That sub fee that David went out and got — that started with Sydney and has never stopped — in essence became the secret sauce of NBC’s ability to win all of the Olympic rights from that point on.”

The two have remained close, talking regularly. Ebersol was at Zaslav’s side last month as Discovery’s Olympic deal was announced.

But it was a phone call Zaslav placed to Ebersol last summer that convinced the two to start working together again — with Ebersol as an unpaid adviser. Discovery had just taken a controlling stake in Eurosport, and Zaslav almost immediately identified Olympic rights as a priority. After all, around 40 percent of Eurosport’s programming is devoted to Olympic sports, Zaslav said.

At the time, Eurosport was not really on the International Olympic Committee’s radar, and Zaslav asked Ebersol to introduce him to the relevant Olympic executives, which he did, culminating in an October meeting with IOC Director General Christophe De Kepper.

Ebersol: “The thing that became unbelievable was that no more than 10 days later, my phone rang. It was De Kepper. He said, ‘Would I take a phone call from IOC President Thomas Bach?’ I did, and Bach said, ‘We’re so excited that you’re back around this world. We’d like you to consult with us, too.’ I said, ‘Well, you know the terms of my deal. I don’t want to be paid.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s always appealing.’”

Ebersol currently is on one of the IOC boards, advising them on how an Olympic channel should be developed.

— John Ourand

The surging popularity of the Kansas City Royals has been a dominant storyline so far this MLB season, from the number of All-Star votes received by the team’s players to, now, the club’s ratings on local TV.

MLB teams' RSN Ratings



Team RSN Avg. rating (change*)
Kansas City Royals FS Kansas City 12.06 (+119%)
St. Louis Cardinals FS Midwest 9.25 (+23%)
Detroit Tigers FS Detroit 7.22 (-4%)
Pittsburgh Pirates Root Sports Pittsburgh 7.01 (+11%)
Baltimore Orioles MASN 5.67 (0%)


Team RSN Avg. rating (change*)
Houston Astros Southwest** 1.70 (+347%)
Los Angeles Angels FS West 1.34 (-6%)
Oakland A's CSN California 1.09 (-17%)
Chicago White Sox CSN Chicago 0.82 (-43%)
Los Angeles Dodgers SportsNet LA 0.75 (-1%)



Team RSN Change* (avg. rating)
Houston Astros Root Sports Southwest** +347% (1.70)
Kansas City Royals FS Kansas City +119% (12.06)
Chicago Cubs CSN Chicago +100% (2.92)
San Diego Padres FS San Diego +56% (4.59)
Washington Nationals MASN +41% (2.69)


Team RSN Change* (avg. rating)
Colorado Rockies Root Sports Rocky Mountain -18% (2.43)
Milwaukee Brewers FS Wisconsin -27% (4.32)
Cleveland Indians SportsTime Ohio -30% (4.21)
Atlanta Braves FS South/SportSouth -32% (2.03)
Chicago White Sox CSN Chicago -43% (0.82)

* Change compared with midseason 2014 data.
Note: Similar data was unavailable for the Toronto Blue Jays.
** Astros' games aired on CSN Houston in 2014.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of Nielsen data

The Royals are on pace to post MLB’s highest RSN rating leaguewide for the first time, averaging a massive 12.06 rating for games on FS Kansas City heading into the All-Star break. If that rating holds for the remainder of the season, it would be MLB’s highest local rating for a team since 2007, when the Boston Red Sox averaged a 12.08 rating at midseason and a 12.20 for a year that saw them win their second World Series in four years.

The 12.06 rating also more than doubles the Royals’ rating at the same point last season and translates to 111,000 homes (sixth-highest in MLB this year) for the 2014 World Series runners-up.

MLB’s other Missouri team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have the league’s second-highest rating, with a 9.25 average.

“Fans have latched on to these teams, and the results are telecasts that dominate local TV viewing night in and night out,” said Jack Donovan, general manager and senior vice president for Fox Sports Midwest and Fox Sports Kansas City.

SportsBusiness Journal reviewed data from all 29 U.S.-based MLB teams. Overall, 13 of the clubs showed local ratings increases from last season, 14 showed decreases and two were flat.

Another one of the feel-good stories this year is in Houston, where Astros games are up more than fourfold from last season, when games were on CSN Houston and had little distribution in the market. This year’s first-place Astros are averaging a 1.7 rating (39,000 homes) on Root Sports Southwest.

Baseball is also taking hold in the nation’s capital, where Washington Nationals games on MASN are up 41 percent, averaging a 2.69 rating (65,000 homes).

“The strong Nationals ratings growth is also supported across most key demos,” said John McGuinness, MASN senior vice president and general sales manager.

Among the relevant demos, McGuinness cited ratings that showed increases among men 18-34 (up 17 percent) and adults 18-49 (up 32 percent).

Los Angeles Dodgers games on SportsNet LA are at the bottom of the ratings list, with continuing limited distribution for the channel, but there is a flicker of hope in the team’s TV story. Since Charter Communications added the RSN on June 9, Dodgers games have averaged a 1.15 rating. The team’s June 23 game against the Chicago Cubs pulled in a 1.57 rating, tops for the team on the network to date.

With the first half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season in the books, it’s clear that fewer people are watching the races on TV. But Fox and NASCAR executives say they are neither surprised nor worried by the decline this year, which is the first of a 10-year media deal between the two.

It’s hard to make a straight ratings comparison with last year, given weather delays and a different race schedule. But the decision to move three races from Fox’s broadcast channel that reaches 116.4 million homes to Fox Sports 1, which is in 84.3 million, virtually guaranteed that viewership would drop.

Kansas was one of three Sprint Cup races that saw a big decline in viewership after moving from Fox broadcast to FS1.
“The decline in the overall average was not unexpected. It was entirely expected,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “But that’s a hit that we’re willing to take in the longer-term interest of building the FS1 business.”

NASCAR executives agreed, and were quick to highlight growing digital and social numbers, which they say show a more engaged fan base than they’ve had in the past.

“If you look at [TV numbers] in conjunction with digital, which we continue to be soaring in, and social, which we continue to soar in, it’s a strong picture of fan engagement,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “So we’re very happy with the first half of the season.”

The biggest TV viewership declines came from the three races that moved from Fox broadcast to FS1 (Martinsville, Kansas and Dover). Kansas dropped 57 percent (from 5.76 million viewers to 2.48 million), Martinsville dropped 39 percent (from 6.7 million viewers to 4.06 million) and Dover was down 13 percent (from 4.5 million viewers to 3.9 million).

Fox started the season strong, registering viewer increases in its first four races. But the last three races on Fox’s broadcast channel saw declines — Richmond (down 7 percent), Talladega (down 9 percent) and Charlotte (down 8 percent).


Dates Network Track Avg. # of viewers (000s)
Feb. 22 Fox Daytona 13,363
March 1 Fox Atlanta 9,500*
March 8 Fox Las Vegas 7,739
March 15 Fox Phoenix 7,000
March 22 Fox Auto Club 7,300
March 29 FS1 Martinsville 4,061
April 11 Fox Texas 4,842
April 19 FS1 Bristol 2,589**
April 26 Fox Richmond 5,200^
May 3 Fox Talladega 6,312
May 9 FS1 Kansas 2,480
May 24 Fox Charlotte 6,408
May 31 FS1 Dover 3,940
June 7 FS1 Pocono 3,614
June 14 FS1 Michigan 3,519
June 28 FS1 Sonoma 3,723

* Started an hour late due to weather delay
** Ran on Fox from 2:31-2:43 p.m., getting 5.1 million viewers. Weather then delayed race until 6:30 p.m. Coverage finished on FS1 from 6:30-10:30 p.m.
^ Rained out on Saturday night and run on Sunday afternoon
Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily

Still, Fox and NASCAR officials are especially upbeat about viewership for the nine races on Fox’s broadcast channel, which Mulvihill said showed a viewership increase over the races on Fox broadcast last year. Of course, much of the increase on Fox’s broadcast network is due to the performance of this year’s Daytona 500, which averaged nearly 13.4 million viewers. That figure is up significantly from the 2014 race, which suffered through a record six-hour rain delay and drew only 9.3 million viewers. Not counting 2014, Daytona 500 viewership was Fox’s lowest since 2010, which featured a two-hour delay to fix potholes in the track.

“It was a priority for us to get off to a strong start and hope that would ripple throughout our entire season,” Mulvihill said. “Our ability to get the season off to a big beginning was the most positive thing that I saw.”

Fox executives also touted the audiences NASCAR brought to FS1. Fox produced 250 hours of NASCAR programming on FS1 this year, and NASCAR races now account for four of the 10 most-watched shows in the channel’s short history, Mulvihill said.

“We were able to pump up the average viewership on the broadcast side moderately, and we were able to deliver some of the most-watched shows ever to the cable side,” Mulvihill said. “That’s the constant challenge for us: How do we make sure that we’re taking care of both sides of the business? I thought that worked out pretty well.”

FS1 averaged 3.568 million viewers for the six Sprint Cup races that were scheduled to air on the network, which included a Saturday night race from Kansas. FS1 televised a seventh race from Bristol, which started on Fox but ended on FS1 following a lengthy rain delay.

The three races FS1 took over from TNT averaged 3.626 million viewers — a number that is down 17 percent from last year’s three-race average of 4.471 million. Last year, TNT averaged 4.218 million viewers for its six-race schedule, which included a Saturday night race from Kentucky and a Sunday morning/early afternoon telecast from Daytona.

Fox also pointed to numbers from the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series as signs of success. Mulvihill said the Xfinity races on Fox’s broadcast channel compared favorably to races that were on ABC last year. Xfinity Series viewership on FS1 was down 4 percent from races on ESPN and ESPN2 — both of which are in more than 92 million homes. And the truck series was up 12 percent in ratings and 9 percent in viewers over the same number of events on FS1 last year, Mulvihill said.

“Because we’ve had such a bulk of NASCAR programming on FS1, I’ve had to start thinking of the partnership as a lot more than just Sprint Cup,” Mulvihill said. “We look at Cup and Xfinity and trucks and the studio programming.”

Thanks partly to its NASCAR programming, FS1 saw its second-quarter prime-time viewership increase by 75 percent this year, while FS2 was up 78 percent.

For NASCAR’s part, Phelps cited a 25 percent increase in page views on all digital platforms plus double-digit engagement and mention spikes on social media as further reasons why the sanctioning body is bullish on overall consumption.

“I think it’s very important, and our partners are looking at it all the time as well,” Phelps said. “So I think you have to look through that lens. It’s not just, ‘Hey, did they watch on television?’”

The targeted advertising strategy that Barack Obama used as he won the 2012 U.S. presidential election is being shopped to sports teams, leagues and sponsors this year.

Rentrak, the audience research company that worked on the Obama campaign’s targeted media strategy, has formed a sports division that it’s launching publicly this week to compete with Nielsen for a share of the growing sports measurement business — from television ratings to in-arena attendance.

More than $20 billion was spent on sports sponsorships and $10 billion on sports media rights last year, according to Rentrak executives. They suggest that the sports marketing research market is worth around $60 million a year, and they want a piece of it.

“The audience that is watching live sports is incredibly valuable,” said Bill Livek, Rentrak’s vice chairman and CEO. “Ads placed in stadium or on TV have enormous value, but only when accurately measured.”

Rentrak has six people working in its sports division in Manhattan. Former Nielsen Sports employee Tom Sommer runs the division and reports to Gary Warech, Rentrak’s senior vice president of advertiser, sports and branded entertainment sales.

The firm’s sports division quietly has been operating since February and has several sports-focused clients, such as NFL Network, NHL Network and the Canadian Basketball League. Rentrak has done work for companies such as Repucom, WWE and IMG as well.

Rentrak has built a business around the collection of reams of data on what people are watching on television, gleaned from set-top boxes that are in about 15 million homes. The firm has deals with DirecTV, Dish Network, Charter, Cox and AT&T U-verse to mine that data. It says it is the only company that can capture such deep and detailed data.

It now plans to extend that business to sports teams and leagues by providing data about the fans going to games — what they are seeing in stadium, what kinds of cars they are likely to drive and what they watch on television.

Rentrak has the capability, for example, to match specific car owners against TV ratings information in a specific market. Rentrak says privacy issues do not come into play because it does not use specific names or addresses. But company executives can learn how many Jeep owners live in a given town, and they can determine what TV shows those people are watching.

Sports networks have been slow to adapt to Rentrak to date because of inconsistencies with its set-top measuring system that adversely affect live sports events. For example, Rentrak is not able to measure games that run beyond their scheduled time slot, so highly rated overtime periods do not get measured.

Some network executives also question whether Rentrak’s TV measuring service continues to measure programming when a television is off but a set-top box remains on. Rentrak said it has started to roll out a system that does not measure programming in that situation.

Rentrak launched a political division in 2011 that the Obama campaign used to more specifically target TV advertising for swing voters. For example, in one swing state, Rentrak data persuaded the Obama campaign to buy advertising on 1 a.m. repeats of “The Insider” and afternoon episodes of “Judge Joe Brown,” according to a 2013 New York Times story, because it found that those shows rated highly among “persuadable voters.”

In the current election cycle, most of the presidential candidates are using Rentrak data, its executives said, though it would not say which ones.

“Sports is the next evolution for Rentrak,” Warech said.

There’s been a lot of upheaval this year in ESPN’s affiliate sales department, the group responsible for bringing in most of the company’s revenue. ESPN’s affiliate group lost its top two executives — and decades of institutional knowledge — when Sean Bratches and David Preschlack announced their resignations earlier this year.

Last month, ESPN posted its lowest subscriber count since February 2007. The network is in 92.94 million homes, according to Nielsen — a number that’s down more than 7 million homes since its high of 100.18 million homes in May 2011.

Around the sports media world:

Ebersol, Zaslav working together again

Plus, ESPN is in the middle of a lawsuit with Verizon, which started marketing low-cost packages that don’t include the high-priced sports networks.

Even though almost all of ESPN’s cable affiliate deals are in the midst of long-term contracts, everywhere you turn, it seems like new threats are popping up with the potential to undermine its business.

Justin Connolly is the executive ESPN picked to lead the company through those threats. Connolly has the reputation in Bristol as a high flyer — he’s someone insiders always point to as the executive most likely to run ESPN once company President John Skipper decides to step down.

The Harvard-educated Connolly got his start in the affiliate business in 2003, but he left the group a little more than a year ago to move to North Carolina and oversee the SEC Network’s successful launch. Now, Skipper has called him back to be the steady hand guiding the affiliate group through this state of unrest.

“For some, they would look at it and suggest that the move is crazy,” Connolly said. “But I actually look at it and think there are some incredible challenges and opportunities ahead. There’s not a better-positioned programming group than the Walt Disney Co.

In his first interview since taking over as executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing, Connolly spoke about how he plans to address some of the challenges ahead in his new role.

What’s the biggest issue you face in your new role?

CONNOLLY: Competition and consumer affordability around pay TV are big questions for us. Having the right conversations and dialogue with our existing partners and helping them grow the total universe of customers is a key piece for us. That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing: How do we keep as many people in the overall content ecosystem as possible?

But with over-the-top networks and digital offerings, it seems impossible for the existing cable and satellite operators to grow.

CONNOLLY: When I think back when I started, neither Verizon nor AT&T U-verse had launched. I was a part of the team that negotiated with those guys before they even got into the business. They added more competition to the MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) universe. Now, the focus is on whether there are other ways to get content out to consumers and how should we participate with that.

I want to stop short of a prediction. But I do think that we are trying to figure out whether there is an opportunity to make the content availability business go through another renaissance here through the consumer choices and the technologies that exist. Can we deliver really great high-quality content to consumers in ways that are different from the past? We’re starting to experiment. The question is what does that look like 24, 36, 48 months from now.

What do you mean?

CONNOLLY: You have our traditional multichannel distributors — the Comcasts of the world — that are going through continued consolidation, looking to get more scale. You’ve got other players like Netflix, Google, which are interesting, particularly as it relates to entertainment-based content from the Walt Disney Co. We have an ownership stake in Hulu, and Netflix is a partner of ours that syndicates our content. Then you’ve got a whole wave of other people with whom we’ve done deals, like Sling TV. We’ve had conversations with Sony. That mix is always changing. We are in conversations with everybody all the time about how we take what is the best portfolio of content in the industry and make it available in a thoughtful way to consumers.

Was it difficult to leave the SEC Network after only one year?

CONNOLLY: I don’t want to call it an easy decision. But it seemed like a natural growth opportunity to basically come back to the group in which I started at ESPN in the early 2000s. It is a good time for a transition. I loved the experience of being in on the ground floor, negotiating with the SEC, working through all the hurdles of our Watch app. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work to do there. Year one would probably be the most important year. But I think year two is critically important as well in terms of sustaining the momentum and growing the brand; getting more integrated with the schools. Roz Durant (ESPN’s senior vice president of college networks, programming) is going to do a killer job on that.

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