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Volume 21 No. 1

Media

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

The Golden State Warriors’ march to 73 wins gave them not only a regular-season record for victories this year, but also a triple crown of sorts for local TV ratings: the top average rating among all NBA teams for the season, the biggest year-over-year rating increase, and the largest average viewership per game.

The Golden State Warriors, led by Steph Curry, have seen gains in local viewership six consecutive years.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
This marks the sixth consecutive year the Warriors have seen gains in local viewership — the first time any NBA or NHL team has seen six straight years of ratings gains.

Warriors games on CSN Bay Area averaged a 9.76 rating (243,000 homes) this season, a whopping 160 percent increase from last year’s average rating. For their season finale, when they won their league-record 73rd game, the team drew a huge 23.2 rating on CSN Bay Area, a number the RSN said is the highest for any NBA regular-season game across any RSN.

CSN Bay Area’s top three telecasts are now all Warriors games from this season.

“Our market bucks the trends,” said Warriors President and COO Rick Welts. “What is different is beyond the wins and losses is a combination of style and play that attracts people, but also the personalities of the individuals that is bringing people to NBA basketball [in] this market and other markets. There is a certain vibe that this team gives off in how they play.”

The Cleveland Cavaliers (9.31 rating on FS Ohio) and San Antonio Spurs (8.71 rating on FS Southwest) joined the Warriors at the top of the RSN ranking for the season. It’s the first time in at least 10 years that three NBA clubs have posted a season ratings average above an 8.0.

The Cavaliers’ local TV rating is the highest ever recorded for the team.

SportsBusiness Journal analyzed ratings data for teams across the NBA; information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available.

While the stories were strong in Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio, such was not the case leaguewide. In fact, 17 of the 27 teams measured saw year-over-year declines in their local ratings this season.

The Atlanta Hawks registered the league’s biggest decrease, despite making another playoff run. Hawks games on FS Southeast averaged a 1.2 rating, down 45 percent from last year — though that average is on par with Hawks ratings in recent years. Before their 2.18 average for 2014-15, the Hawks’ average rating in the six seasons prior ranged between a 0.97 and a 1.4.

In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant’s final season did nothing to help Lakers ratings on TWC SportsNet. The team’s 1.51 rating (83,000 homes) was down 3 percent from 2014-15, setting a historic low for a third consecutive season.
TWC SportsNet launched with Lakers rights for the team’s 2012-13 season.

Brooklyn Nets games on YES Network were the league’s lowest-rated games for the second straight year and seventh time in the last nine years. Nets games averaged a 0.46 rating (34,000 homes).

Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks games on FS Southwest dropped to their lowest point since the 2008-09 season. This season’s 1.58 average rating for Mavs games was down 35 percent from last year as the team saw its record dip to 42-40 this season compared with 50-32 last year.

NBA Team RSN Ratings

AVG. RATING

TOP 5
TEAM RSN AVG. RATING (CHANGE*)
Golden State Warriors CSN Bay Area 9.76 (+160%)
Cleveland Cavaliers FS Ohio 9.31 (+17%)
San Antonio Spurs FS Southwest 8.71 (+4%)
Oklahoma City Thunder FS Oklahoma 6.70 (-6%)
Miami Heat Sun Sports 4.50 (-9%)
Bottom 5
TEAM RSN AVG. RATING (CHANGE*)
Philadelphia 76ers CSN Philadelphia 0.93 (+40%)
Charlotte Hornets FS Southeast 0.87 (-12%)
Washington Wizards CSN Mid-Atlantic 0.86 (-34%)
Denver Nuggets Altitude 0.80 (-4%)
Brooklyn Nets YES Network 0.46 (-6%)

AVG. RATING CHANGE

TOP 6
TEAM RSN CHANGE* (AVG. RATING)
Golden State Warriors CSN Bay Area +160% (9.76)
Orlando Magic FS Florida +63% (1.32)
New York Knicks MSG +58% (1.98)
Philadelphia 76ers CSN Philadelphia +40% (0.93)
Cleveland Cavaliers FS Ohio +17% (9.31)
Minnesota Timberwolves FS North +17% (1.35)
Bottom 5
TEAM RSN CHANGE* (AVG. RATING)
New Orleans Pelicans FS New Orleans -32% (1.23)
Washington Wizards CSN Mid-Atlantic -34% (0.86)
Dallas Mavericks FS Southwest -35% (1.58)
Chicago Bulls CSN Chicago -37% (2.96)
Atlanta Hawks FS Southeast -45% (1.20)

* Compared with 2014-15 season.
Notes: Information for Memphis, Utah and Toronto was not available.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of Nielsen data


Jamie Horowitz’s public critique of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” earlier this month clearly touched a nerve in Bristol.

Speaking at the 2016 CAA World Congress of Sports, the Fox Sports National Networks president cited the declining ratings for ESPN’s signature show, saying, “I’d be a little worried if I were them.”

A former ESPN executive, Horowitz cited stats that showed “SportsCenter” ratings had dropped 27 percent since 2010. Over the last five years, “SportsCenter” ratings in the 18-to-34 demo are down 36 percent. Horowitz, who has launched several opinion-based studio shows to small audiences on Fox Sports 1, believes that news-driven shows like “SportsCenter” do not work well on television anymore since highlights are so readily available online.

ESPN executives have heard these criticisms many times before and are eager to counter them. They know that people watch “SportsCenter” differently. But Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and news, refuses to concede the point that consumers’ move to mobile dooms “SportsCenter” as a television product. He believes that ESPN is making the necessary changes that eventually will turn “SportsCenter” ratings around.

“We could spend a lot of energy reading points of view on ‘SportsCenter’ from folks who don’t work within ‘SportsCenter,’” King said. “They haven’t seen the amount of work that’s being produced by folks designed to get everywhere … I would expect that the work we’ve done over the last couple of years to truly differentiate those hours will take some time for people to recognize and attach themselves and see the kinds of things that we’ve done.”

Those changes have centered on the idea of creating deeper connections with “SportsCenter” viewers, from having anchors show more of their personality to taking the show on the road more frequently.

King is most pleased that each show has its own identity, which he believes keeps it from becoming a formulaic news and highlights show. “SportsCenter: AM” (7-10 a.m. ET) is programmed more for morning commuters, while the 10 a.m. “SportsCenter” with Hannah Storm gets more in-depth on topics.

Meanwhile, “SportsCenter” anchors have been told to allow their personalities to emerge more than they have in the past and become more transparent about the teams they support. King believes this helps create a deeper connection with their viewers.

ESPN has created some editions around the host’s personality, like Scott Van Pelt’s late-night show, which is heavy on college sports, gambling, golf and, of course, University of Maryland references.

“We were moved to do it because it was something that would move Scott and the production team to the point of passion, but also because we knew that it made sense from an audience perspective,” King said.

“SportsCenter” is looking for passion points, which is one of the reasons that it has taken the show on the road under the banner of “SportsCenter on the Road.” It has produced the show from big events, like the NBA Finals, to smaller venues, like a trip to Hampton University in February to document the school’s first lacrosse game.

“It’s not a small deal for us to have staked that claim and then work out a great partnership with somebody like Ford to sponsor ‘SportsCenter on the Road,’” King said. “‘SportsCenter on the Road’ became much more than just a side initiative. It became an ongoing promise of connection out in the sports fans’ world.”

While he’s working to improve “SportsCenter” TV ratings, King believes such a myopic focus misses a bigger point.

“TV ratings matter. We think about them a lot, and I don’t want to be cavalier about it,” King said. “When measurements start taking in real-time viewing across all platforms, the story will appear less dire. We have evidence every day that people are changing how they are consuming. But I also think there is a big question about television specifically and its demand that people do one thing when we want them to do it.”

As an example, King pointed to the 1 a.m. ET “SportsCenter” following the April 13 Lakers-Jazz game when Kobe Bryant scored 60 points. “SportsCenter” logged 116,000 unique viewers who watched a live stream via WatchESPN, in addition to the 1.35 million viewers that watched on the ESPN linear channel. Plus, in the 24 hours after that Lakers game and the Warriors record-setting game that occurred at the same time, ESPN counted 10.9 million video clip starts for those highlights on its nonlinear platforms.

“I know there are networks out there that would take an audience of 116,000 at 1 a.m.,” King said.

It is notable that Fox Sports and the Big Ten Conference are close to a media rights deal covering half of the available package because it is the only major sports rights property on the market for the next several years. News of the pending deal last week sparked a number of questions from media and college executives who were surprised by the timing and wanted to learn more details about it.

Given Fox’s existing business relationship with the network — it owns 51 percent of Big Ten Network — the news that Fox would pick up some of the conference’s rights is not so surprising. It was the other aspects of the deal that became the industry’s hottest topic last week.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, doing an interview on ESPN in November, has sought $500M a year for the new media rights deal.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
These were the questions we heard most often, followed by our take.

What happened to ESPN?

ESPN’s lowball bid is the most shocking part of these negotiations and could be the first sign that the network’s cost-cutting measures are starting to affect its rights deals. This isn’t like NASCAR or the Olympics — two properties that ESPN didn’t seek — which kept it from being aggressive in the bidding process. ESPN likes Big Ten programming for its reach and demographics, and its executives have not been shy about saying that they want to keep it. Though it hasn’t happened a lot, ESPN has been outbid before, like on the NCAA tournament, which went to CBS and Turner, and World Cup, which went to Fox.

But we can’t think of another time that ESPN did not place a competitive bid for a property it really wanted. Sources said ESPN’s offer was well below Fox’s. This is the network that has set the parameters for sports rights negotiations since the late 1990s, and it should send shock waves to sports leagues that ESPN is more cost-conscious with its rights fees. The question is how long this belt-tightening will last given that most major sports rights aren’t up for several years. Word is that ESPN already has set up meetings to bid on what remains of the Big Ten’s rights. But if ESPN’s bid wasn’t competitive for the first package, we’re skeptical that it will be competitive on the second one.

Who’s around to bid on the second package?

ESPN’s noncompetitive bid was an attempt by the network to “skim the cream” from the top of the package and try to create a smaller package with the best games, one source said. ESPN will continue to negotiate with the conference for the second package. The big question is: What other networks are serious about doing a deal?

NBC Sports Group has been at the Big Ten table, and it has open broadcast windows that the Big Ten likes. But a Big Ten deal does not fit with NBC’s programming strategy. With the Olympics, NHL, EPL, Notre Dame and second half of the NASCAR season, NBC diligently has followed a strategy of cutting programming deals where it can carry a sport exclusively. Even “Sunday Night Football” fills an exclusive window for NBC. With the Big Ten, however, it would be sharing rights with Fox and the Big Ten Network, and its windows almost certainly would compete with other college sports programming.

CBS and Turner make an intriguing combination. The two have partnered on the NCAA tournament, and could team up again on the Big Ten. CBS would like to keep its basketball schedule and could add a Saturday Big Ten football game on either side of its weekly SEC game to create a compelling doubleheader. Turner could use a Thursday night Big Ten game early in the fall to lead into its “NBA on TNT” Thursday night games. Turner also could use Big Ten basketball games as a lead-up to its NCAA tournament coverage.

Then there’s Fox, which also will be interested in testing the waters on the second package, but only at the right price.

Why did the Big Ten do such a short deal?

When conference media deals expire:

Conference Year
Big Ten 2022-23
Pac-12 2023-24
Big 12 2024-25
ACC 2026-27
SEC 2033-34

Media negotiations typically come down to timing and leverage, and the Big Ten’s six-year deal with Fox is no different. The length of the deal means that the Big Ten will see a sizable increase now, while leaving it in position to take another bite from the apple when this deal expires in 2022-23. The Big Ten, by bucking the trend of doing long-term deals that go out anywhere from 12 to 20 years, will be able to go back to the table before any of its conference brethren. In the most recent cycle of contract renewals, the Big Ten went last, which originally was thought to be an advantage. The other leagues theoretically would complete their deals, and the Big Ten would come in and obliterate them all. Sources tell us that the first half of the Big Ten package will fetch around $250 million annually from Fox. The second half of the negotiations will determine if this theory was right or wrong.

Isn’t the sports rights bubble supposed to be bursting?

The sports rights market certainly is not as frothy as it was a couple of years ago when ESPN and Turner committed $24 billion over nine years for the NBA’s rights. But the Big Ten already has more than doubled the average annual payout it was getting, even if it is completely unable to sell that second package. ESPN is at the end of its 10-year, $1 billion deal, and CBS is at the end of its six-year, $72 million basketball-only deal. Fox could pay as much as $250 million a year, sources said. It’s impossible to know exactly how much Fox will pay for its half of the package because the conference could wind up switching some rights around. For example, it could try to entice bidders by putting its football championship game in the second package — a move that would lower Fox’s payout. If there’s a sports rights bubble that’s going to burst, it’s not going to happen until the 2020s when many of the big sports rights deals expire.

How much will the schools get?

Recent reports indicate that Big Ten schools are projecting $44.5 million in annual revenue by the first year of the new TV contract (2017-18) for 12 of its 14 schools. Maryland and Rutgers aren’t fully vested until they’ve been in the conference six years. The majority of that revenue will come from the league’s media contracts. The Big Ten Network pays $8 million per school annually. If the new deal eventually reaches $500 million per year, as Commissioner Jim Delany has sought, that would average $35.7 million per school once all of the schools are able to take a full share. Combined with the BTN revenue, the Big Ten’s annual revenue would reach a whopping $44 million per school.

Should ESPN’s commitment to college sports be questioned?

No. ESPN still is the most important network to college sports given the network’s ownership of ESPNU and SEC Network. ESPN carries the College Football Playoff and 95 percent of bowl games. It owns college bowl games, kickoff classic games and preseason basketball tournaments, not to mention its longtime deals with just about every conference out there. But … this deal solidifies Fox’s position in the college sports world and certainly narrows the gap between the two. In addition to its 51 percent stake in BTN, Fox has deals with the Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences, and its college multimedia rights business has taken off.

Will coaches freak out if their games aren’t on ESPN?

Yes, and so will administrators throughout the conference. Years ago, when the ACC flirted with leaving ESPN for Fox, some of the conference’s powerful basketball coaches were not shy about voicing their displeasure, believing that the lack of ESPN coverage would hurt their recruiting efforts. It’s too early to know how Big Ten coaches and athletic directors will react. But consider this: When school administrators asked at the recent league meetings if it’s possible for ESPN to get shut out, they were told, “Anything is possible.” One senior official at a Big Ten school said his peers “were scared to death” at the prospect of not having games on ESPN, which could eat into their recruiting.

As NBC’s lead Premier League play-by-play announcer, Arlo White has a unique perspective on the roaring success of Leicester City. His hometown club started the 2015-16 season with 5,000-to-1 odds to win the league yet finds itself in first place with just three games remaining in the season. “I’m still looking for the right words to sum up how incredible it really is,” White said while visiting NBC’s headquarters in New York City to fill in for “Premier League Live” host Rebecca Lowe while she is on maternity leave.

White, who joined the network in 2012, spoke to staff writer Ian Thomas about the growth of the network and its soccer coverage.

White came to NBC from the Seattle Sounders.
Photo by: NBC SPORTS GROUP
This year in the Premier League we’re seeing many of the smaller clubs, like Leicester, have great success compared even to perennial powers, like Chelsea. How does that affect you on the broadcasting side?

WHITE: Smaller teams have bigger profiles now. I think our challenge when teams like Chelsea are not pushing for the title is to ensure that their fans are still watching and that they’re still engaged, but that we also educate the layman fan that is expecting to see these big clubs and educate them when they see a team they don’t recognize that this isn’t a bad thing; this is an exciting thing.

I think the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world, and maybe we are set now for a new normal that there is going to be a bit of a flux at the top of the table, and those smaller clubs will challenge for the top four. This makes it more American in a way, because the system in England and world football typically is that there is no system and the same teams are usually at the top. This season we’ve seen much more parity like the NFL, so on any given Saturday a team can beat another team, and I think that has energized the Premier League and its fans.

NBC is still somewhat of a new name when it comes to broadcasting the Premier League. Have you seen a shift in terms of the way clubs and the league approach the network over the last four years?

WHITE: Last year, when we brought the entire team [to the U.K.] so we had a studio, a pitch-side desk and also an announce team in the stadium as well, even local broadcasters think, “Goodness me: They’re taking this seriously.” And we’re very visible, with NBCSN on the desk, and fans over there realize how serious NBC and the Americans are taking it.

White is now filling in as host of “Premier League Live.”
Photo by: NBC SPORTS GROUP
We’re the conduit through which they can also reach the audience that they want to target. And it’s not just games, not just access to players for interviews; you’ve seen the shows that we’ve done, the download [documentary] shows with Southampton and Crystal Palace. These aren’t the most household names amongst football clubs around the world, but maybe they are more open [with us] because they have more to gain.

Media access policies are quite different in the United States compared to Europe, where they’re traditionally very strict. How has that changed how you work, and do you see any changes in the future?

WHITE: When I was working MLS, we’d get to the town a day or two early for a game, and we’d sit and do production meetings with three players and a manager from either team, so at the end of it you’ve spoke with eight guys who are involved in the game. You know so much more about that game as a result. They’d even give you, because they could trust us, the starting 11s. You ask a British manager for a starting 11 the day before a game he would literally have you committed. You’d be thrown out.

The problem in England, of course, is the tabloid press, and the idea that they are trying to catch everyone out to get a back-page splash. It leads to tremendous suspicion between the two parties. So the players and managers want to speak with the media as little as possible, and it’s a shame. It’s almost the cart before the horse in England.

Veteran Hollywood television and film production company Mandt Bros., whose credits include “Million Dollar Arm” and “Rome Is Burning,” is expanding into virtual reality content, with a particular focus on sports.

MANDT
The newly formed Mandt VR, based in Los Angeles, will seek to operate in both live virtual reality content and post-produced material. The company has aligned with longtime sports media and marketing executive Gordon Whitener, a founding partner of Bespoke Sports & Entertainment and principal of his own Whitener Co., to aid in the formal launch of the venture, and it has added about two dozen employees to develop VR content.

“We’re storytellers at heart, and this is a powerful new forum to tell stories,” said Neil Mandt, head of Mandt VR. “The landscape and untapped opportunities in this space are very exciting.”

Mandt VR has developed a recruiting video in the enhanced format for Oklahoma State University that provides an immersive, 360-degree view of the football program’s facilities and the look and feel of the life of a player in Stillwater, Okla. The company is in talks with several other college athletic programs to develop similar videos, including University of Kentucky basketball.

The new Mandt VR has about two dozen employees to develop virtual reality content.
The VR recruiting videos in part seek to give geographically displaced recruits a sense of campuses without the need to travel and be on site.

“This is something where VR can really help solve a problem,” Mandt said. “In addition to NCAA limits on official visits, there are all sorts of constraints on athletic department time, resources and budgets that this technology can help address.”

The company also has an agreement with Chip Ganassi Racing to develop live VR content that does not conflict with other Ganassi or IndyCar Series media rights agreements. Mandt declined to detail specifics about the nature of the developing Ganassi VR content but said it would allow “motorsports to live in a virtual world, show new perspectives and bring it to fans around the world.”