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Volume 21 No. 1


If you view ELeague solely by its television viewership, its next season on TBS ought to be in danger of being canceled. The league, created this year by Turner and WME-IMG, averaged just 249,000 viewers on TBS during its seven-week regular season from May 27-July 15.

Viewership ranged from a low of 153,000 viewers on June 10 (which went up against the NBA Finals) to a high of 386,000 viewers a week earlier, on June 3, which was the season’s second week. These numbers represent viewership over a two-to-four-hour period starting at 10 p.m. on Friday nights. The June 10 show was three hours and 42 minutes long; the June 3 show was two hours and 30 minutes.

Even before the season, Turner warned that industry types should view ELeague results differently. Turner gave advertisers a 0.3 ratings guarantee, which typically amounts to less than 500,000 viewers — a low figure that, with the championship match still to go, it is not likely to hit.

But this focus on TV viewership — something I do for every other sports property — does not tell the full story, Turner executives stressed.

It may be PR spin. But in this case, I’m buying it.

ELeague Viewership

ELeague made its TV debut Friday, May 27, on TBS. Tournament coverage as of press time included a six-week regular season, a one-week last-chance qualifier round and a quarterfinal round. The tournaments aired Fridays at 10 p.m. ET. The events were televised in their entirety, which varied from four hours and 15 minutes in Week 1, to approximately one hour and 20 minutes in Weeks 5 and 6. The first half of the Week 3 coverage went head-to-head against Game 4 of the NBA Finals on ABC.

Source: Austin Karp, SportsBusiness Daily

Esports is different than any other U.S. sports property that we cover in that it uses television to supplement digital, where it is a cornerstone on platforms like Twitch.

“Esports will always be a native digital property,” said Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ executive vice president of production and chief content officer, who added Turner executives remain enthused about esports.

But even those low TV numbers carry a silver lining. Barry noted that the male 18-34 demographic — where there has been erosion in TV viewership — represented a whopping 70 percent of the series’ audience. The male 18-49 demo was up 38 percent compared with the same telecast window over the previous month. That helped make ELeague’s audience five years younger than the typical TBS audience — a figure that has been noticed by potential advertisers.

These numbers do not include the league’s digital results, which Barry said were higher than expected, logging 18.7 million video streams on Twitch and 47 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter.

Speaking a few days before the ELeague championship, Barry called the season a learning experience, saying that Turner and WME-IMG executives will make some tweaks to the schedule. Specifically, Barry said the season went on too long — both the 10-week season and the 30 hours of programming across digital and TV each week. Comparing ELeague to the NCAA tournament, Barry said the schedule needed more “do-or-die tension during the competition.”

“It’s a lot to ask the community to watch 30 hours a week, day in and day out,” he said. “Take March Madness, for example. From a bracket scenario, it’s one-and-done. Every game is super important, which gets everybody to tune in because there’s a sense of urgency around each game. When we look at a new format, we’re going to look to create something where every game really matters.”

Barry said TBS’s focus was to produce shows that gamers felt were authentic — ones that were not dumbed down for television. Some in the gaming community said Turner achieved that goal.

Manny Anekal, founder of the esports business publication The Next Level, pointed to the set design as an example. Turner built a set in Atlanta to handle the league. By comparison, Anekal pointed to ESPN’s coverage of the Evolution Championship Series — a gaming tournament based in Las Vegas that featured contestants on folding chairs.

“Any time you take something niche and try to make it mainstream, the inherent challenge is how to keep things authentic,” Anekal said. “I’m not sure how to define authentic, but Turner did a fantastic job on production, trying to educate a new audience about esports and introducing a story to ELeague.”

A consistent storyline that drew viewers this year focused on the eight U.S. teams that competed.

“Whenever they came into the studio, the audience would get larger — the event and viewing audience,” Barry said. “The majority of the time, the U.S. teams were the underdogs against the European teams. There was always a great energy and dynamic around the North American teams coming in and trying to pull off the upset. Those were the evenings that resonated because there was so much energy behind them.”

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

Texas’ and Oklahoma’s TV arrangements convinced the Big 12 from pursuing a linear channel.

The Big 12’s TV partners are pushing back on the conference’s plans to expand.

ESPN and Fox Sports believe that expansion with schools from outside the power five conferences will water down the Big 12 and make it less valuable, not more, sources said. But the Big 12 is financially motivated to add more teams. A clause in the conference’s media deals stipulate that if the Big 12 expands, it would receive pro rata increases in its rights fees.

The original deals pay $2.6 billion over 13 years, or about $20 million per school annually. Expansion by two schools, theoretically, would force ESPN and Fox combined to pay an additional $40 million per year in rights fees. Expansion by four teams could mean another $80 million per year.

Both networks, according to sources, are digging their heels in against paying those kinds of increases based on expansion with schools outside the power five.

Among the schools reportedly being considered for expansion are Brigham Young, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis and others. The Big 12, which has 10 teams, has not said if it will expand by two or four schools, but both options are in play.

The drive to expand is fueled by the opportunity to almost immediately generate more money for its schools. The conference’s TV deals run through 2024-25 and the Big 12 already trails the rest of the power five conferences in revenue, so expansion stands out as the only way for the Big 12 to increase revenue.

Any newcomers to the league wouldn’t be expected to receive a full share of TV revenue for multiple years, meaning more money for the 10 existing members.

Also, the Big 12 is the only conference in the power five that doesn’t have a revenue-generating linear channel, or plans to start one. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have launched networks, while the ACC and ESPN say they will partner on a network in 2019.

The Big 12 earlier this year explored a linear channel and decided against it, in part, because many of its schools like Texas and Oklahoma already have long-term TV arrangements outside of the conference’s primary deals — Texas with ESPN and Oklahoma with Fox.

The conference already has announced plans to start a football championship game next year, which could mean another $25 million to $30 million in revenue. Absent a conference channel, the only other way for the Big 12 to significantly grow revenue in the near term is to add schools and activate that pro rata clause in its media contracts.

That kind of cash grab, sources say, is rubbing ESPN and Fox the wrong way because any new schools would not carry the profile of most power five schools, which is what the networks are paying for.

Network executives spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are in the midst of negotiating with the conference.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, reached via text message last week, declined to comment on any aspect of the process, but this latest round of expansion clearly was triggered by the ACC’s plans to start a channel and the potential for more revenue.

News broke on July 18 that the ACC would launch a new channel in 2019, and the following day the Big 12 came out with its plan for Bowlsby to start vetting expansion candidates.

Network officials, however, are not happy with any plan that depends on steep rights-fee increases, even if such increases are spelled out in the media contracts.

There’s also some history here. Executives at ESPN and Fox remember 2010 when they helped hold the conference together against the Pac-12’s raid by keeping rights fees at the 12-team level, even though the Big 12 was reduced to 10 teams — Nebraska left for the Big Ten, while Colorado departed for the Pac-12. That was under the previous Big 12 administration led by former Commissioner Dan Beebe.

In this latest round of expansion, network executives say the Big 12 is putting the conference’s financial gain ahead of its quality. ESPN and Fox concede that the conference’s expansion plans would increase game inventory, but the quality of teams coming from outside of the power five would not enhance the Big 12 to warrant the aggressive rights-fee increases.

Several options are being considered at the networks’ headquarters.

ESPN and Fox could negotiate smaller rights-fee increases as opposed to the pro rata increases.

If the networks, both of which have encountered some financial challenges in the last year with cutbacks and subscriber losses, decided to staunchly challenge the contracts, they could simply not pay the increases and force the conference to take them to court. ESPN and Fox would argue that the move to expand and charge the TV networks more money does not reflect the spirit of the original deals, which were signed four years ago. The conference, of course, can fall back on its contracts, which spell out pro rata increases.

Another option would be to go along with the increases now and not support the Big 12 in 2025, when the grant of rights and the TV deals expire.

Either way, this is not what Bowlsby had in mind in 2012 when he signed these TV contracts and proclaimed: “The stability of the Big 12 Conference is cemented.”

ESPN is changing the way it is selling ESPN and ESPN2, telling advertisers that it will run the same commercials across both linear television and its digital simulcasts.

The move marks a significant change in strategy for ESPN, which always has carried different ads digitally and priced each platform separately. Combining linear TV and digital viewership for advertisers should help ESPN’s viewership numbers, which are down this year and expected to drop even more sharply during the Olympics.

ESPN actually started this move last October, when it began simulcasting the same “SportsCenter” ads on television and digitally via WatchESPN. Now, the company is expanding it to the full ESPN and ESPN2 networks — including live event programming.

“As we approached this upfront season, we started thinking that the way people were consuming live through Watch is similar to how they’re consuming it on a linear device,” said Eric Johnson, ESPN’s executive vice president of global multimedia sales. “We thought it would be better to create this as an opportunity to extend reach and take advantage of features and adjacencies and sponsorships and make sure the advertising pods look as clean as they can look.”

The move affects only ESPN and ESPN2. ESPN will continue to sell different digital ad loads for ESPNU, ESPNews and its programming on ABC, which includes college football and the NBA.

“We don’t want to say that one environment is winning over the other,” Johnson said. “We want to be actively involved in both of those environments. We want to test and learn within this.”

Ad buyers say they have been pushing for this change for the past several years and are hopeful that other networks will follow ESPN’s lead. Traditionally, television networks have charged extra for digital advertising on the theory that the typical digital audience is younger and more affluent than the typical television audience. Ad buyers say TV networks largely have stopped charging a premium for digital placements.

“Why should we have to buy both?” one ad buyer said. “We want networks to give us a cume of the audience delivery.”

Johnson, who spearheaded the move internally at ESPN, cited a statistic that said 60 percent of the people using the Watch app to watch “SportsCenter,” watch it over-the-top via a television set. That presented a problem for a show like “SportsCenter,” which integrates sponsors more than other ESPN programs.

“We realized that we had all this great value locked into the sponsorship of ‘SportsCenter,’ but the commercial loads on linear and digital weren’t syncing, which was undercutting the value of the sponsorship,” Johnson said.
Johnson said advertisers reacted well to the “SportsCenter” move, and he expects them to react similarly to ESPN’s fall plans.

“Logically, it made sense,” he said. “It’s extending reach to a coveted audience. Nobody is watching ‘SportsCenter’ on their television and watching ‘SportsCenter’ on their WatchESPN app at the same time. …

“We didn’t have to do this. This is something that we proactively are doing because we think it is the perfect blend and the perfect time for what is happening between television and digital.”

— John Ourand

It was not surprising to hear Kevin Wheeler, sports radio host on St. Louis’ 101 ESPN, say that his show has focused much less on the NFL so far this year, given that it will be the first time in two decades that the city has no NFL team.

Wheeler has conducted listener polls to determine how to cover the league this fall — from focusing on the biggest games to supporting all the Los Angeles Rams opponents this year.

“We’re all still feeling that out,” he said. “I get the sense, though, that it’s still going to be about gambling and fantasy football. People are still going to consume football for those reasons, but maybe not with the same competitive zeal that they had when they had a team in their hometown.”

— John Ourand