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Volume 22 No. 7

Media

revenue-sharing deal that puts the William Hill World Darts Championship on BBC America this month illustrates how important live sports competitions have become in the broader television business.

 

The deal also provides a road map for niche sports that want linear TV distribution. ESPN, CBS, Fox and NBC Sports are consumed with the biggest games and the biggest leagues. But smaller properties like darts can find a home — and coveted time slots — at channels like BBC America.

  

“More and more entertainment networks are trying to own a piece of a live sporting franchise,” said Courtney Thomasma, executive director for BBC America. “It felt to us like a natural time to get in, and darts was a natural fit given its prominence in the U.K.”

 

BBC America, a channel jointly owned by AMC Networks and BBC Studios, is so sold on darts as a programming genre that it has scheduled the finals on one of its most heavily viewed days of the year — New Year’s Day. The U.S.-based channel for Anglophiles will use one of its highest-rated shows, the “Dr. Who New Year’s Day Special,” as a lead-in for the darts final.

 

Imagine a darts competition commanding such a coveted time slot on one of the bigger sports channels.

  

When you hear the way Thomasma talks about darts, a sport her channel first started carrying a year ago, you can see why general entertainment channels are becoming more interested in niche sports. It’s no secret that scripted entertainment programming has been hit with huge ratings dips. But ratings for many live sports — even a sport as niche as darts — have been rising, both on TV and online. BBC America offers darts as a livestream on its website and via Facebook Watch. The World Darts Championship hopes to have a deal with YouTube soon.

 

“We found the uptake around the livestream surprisingly popular,” she said. “There’s something about the immediacy of live sports and especially something that’s a little bit fringe that really appeals to the super sports fan and a more casual fan.”

 

BBC America’s plans for the darts event shows how entertainment channels are drawn to niche live sports.

Thomasma also sounds surprised by the passion of darts fans.

 

“The fandom around darts is passionate like we’ve never seen before,” Thomasma said. “Sports — especially the emerging sports category — has been somewhat immune to declining [ratings] pressures. The majority of the viewership is live, which is the holy grail in what we do. We actually find that there is an appetite for fringe sports.”

 

Sponsors have followed that interest. BBC America already has signed Geico, Mountain Dew and TD Ameritrade as sponsors, and more are expected.

 

“This is one of our categories that has gotten the most interest from sponsors when we’ve been out talking to agencies,” Thomasma said.

 

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

I bump into ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on Maryland’s College Park campus about once or twice a year and see firsthand what a recognizable star the Maryland alum has become. It’s the same story with “SportsCenter” anchor Kevin Negandhi on Temple’s Philadelphia campus.

I am convinced that more people in my hometown of Washington, D.C., would recognize CBS announcer Jim Nantz or ESPN’s Chris Berman than any of the city’s sports stars.

That kind of recognition is a main reason why The Montag Group signed a development deal with Stadium for an interview series called “Broadcast Stories” that will feature one-on-one interviews where some of the biggest names in sports broadcasting discuss how they got their start and tell stories about their careers.

“Broadcasters are sometimes bigger than the players or events that they’re calling,” said Sandy Montag, CEO of The Montag Group. “Obviously, they are not bigger than the NFL or the major events. But with the power of ESPN, ‘SportsCenter,’ the other networks and big events, broadcasters have become household names. Their Q ratings are off the chart.”

Montag and Stadium CEO Jason Coyle came up with the idea after the success of “Baseball Stories” earlier this year, which was hosted by Jayson Stark.

One of the best-known agents in the business, Montag has an elite roster of sports broadcasters, including Nantz, Van Pelt, James Brown, Bob Costas and Mike Tirico. Montag made a point to note that the series would interview broadcasters repped by other agencies.

Montag and Coyle have not settled on a host for the series, which is slated to debut in the first quarter of 2019.

“Everyone got their start somewhere,” Montag said. “How that happens and the path that they took to get to stardom is an interesting story — especially today when there are so many schools of journalism and so many schools of sports management, the path isn’t easy. It’s kind of a motivational story for people out there that it can happen.”

As general manager of two regional sports networks based in a rabid sports town, Francois McGillicuddy had one of the best jobs in sports media. In the six years that he ran Cleveland-based FS Ohio and SportsTime Ohio, he saw one of his teams — the Cavaliers — win the NBA title and another — the Indians — compete in a seven-game World Series, both in 2016. The year before, another one of his teams — the Blue Jackets — played host to the NHL All-Star Game and another — the Reds — played host to the MLB All-Star Game.

Last week, Fox Sports announced that it had hired McGillicuddy to be president of the Big Ten Network, replacing Mark Silverman. The only president BTN has ever known, Silverman moved to Los Angeles earlier this year to be Fox Sports’ president of national networks. McGillicuddy will move to Chicago and start his new job next month.

I caught up with McGillicuddy to ask him why he made that move. His answer focused on the passion of college sports fans. In McGillicuddy’s mind, he’s trading one passionate fan base for another.

“When it comes to our business, it’s all about the passion of the fan,” he said. “But I think that the passion in the collegiate space is a really special bond — for alumni and fans in those communities. It’s one of the deepest bonds in all of sports.”

The virtual studio will place on-air talent among many eye-catching backdrops.
Photo: Fox Sports

When Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds used to analyze a certain part of a car during races, he could only use a telestrator or touchscreen to provide a visual for viewers.

 

But starting with the 2019 season, the former crew chief will be standing on a massive green-screen set in Charlotte next to what viewers will see as a virtual rendering of a race car, pointing and gesturing like a meteorologist reporting the weather.

 

The move is part of Fox’s plan to utilize “Fortnite” maker Epic Games’ Unreal Engine generator to bring next-level graphic technology to NASCAR. Network executives hope that it will be more eye-catching and educational in a sport that is based around technology and features many complex situations that viewers can’t experience firsthand, from going inside a race car to visualizing the qualities of a track’s layout.

 

Analyst Larry McReynolds stands in the giant green room.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

Fox announced late this year that it would use Unreal Engine to revamp its “NASCAR Race Hub” studio show, plus certain aspects of its race-day coverage. Fox’s plan, which has been about two years in the making, is to test Unreal Engine in NASCAR before eventually expanding it to other sports.

 

Fox recently gave SBJ access to the studio to show how it will work.

 

“It’s a game changer,” said Michael Dolan, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of creative services, who is helping oversee the changeover. “We can give the viewer a much better experience with the virtual set; [for example], we can show close-ups of components of the race that we’ve never been able to do, or a host can stand on the surface of a track without actually being there.”

 

The move to switch to the technology coincides with a decision by Fox to start basing McReynolds and its mobile studio talent in Charlotte for most races rather than having them travel to each one as they have for years. As part of that, Fox is discontinuing its well-known “Hollywood Hotel” mobile studio that it stationed in the infield of tracks to host pre-race coverage and in-race segment breaks.

 

Now McReynolds, who serves as a sort of remote fourth commentator for Fox on top of its three-man booth, will do the same work but from the Charlotte studio on race days.

  

Because the new set relies on computer technology, it’s relatively bare in person, other than a few pieces of furniture. The 60-by-60-foot set, which was built next to the old traditional set, has a 50-by-47-foot green screen area and is equipped with five Stype Red Spy cameras, 3D tracking technology from Blacktrax, and Zero Density studio software.

 

Fox Sports shows how the green room transforms with one virtual background that highlights race cars.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

Zac Fields, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of graphic technology and integration, declined to disclose how much Fox has invested into the new setup, but said it takes rudimentary, inexpensive green-screen technology “to a whole other level.” The technology first drew major acclaim in the U.S. earlier this year when The Weather Channel used Unreal Engine to illustrate to viewers the devastating effects of a hurricane.

 

The virtual car that McReynolds will use has taken perhaps the most hours to produce. While Fox has used a virtual representation of a car in the past, it was much more limited in that graphics were built around only specific areas of the car. With the new technology, McReynolds is working hand in hand with Fox’s graphics team to build an entire virtual car with every last part properly connected as if it were a real car.

 

“It’s been a challenge, because I know a race car inside and out but we are trying to turn it into a virtual car, which I know nothing about,” McReynolds said. “[At the same time], we’re taking some guys [in Fox’s graphics department] who will work their guts out and know everything about the virtual pieces but knew little to nothing about a race car. We’ve been trying to make these two worlds meet.”

  

The technology also will allow Fox to show three-dimensional depictions of tracks to break down qualities such as banking. Fox is working with racing video game developers, who already have mapped-out versions of each track, to build the graphic representations of the venues.

 

The graphic technology ups the game on everything from driver lineups to track facts.
Photo: Fox Sports

The virtual studio will be able to show representations of cars and race shops, plus a host of statistical graphics. It will be able to project the set as having two floors and provide multiple angles, including overhead.

 

Fox will bring in its on-air talent in January to start rehearsing on using the set.

 

Marc Petit, general manager of Unreal Engine Enterprise, said Fox is among the early movers in this space from a broadcast perspective, but the technology is beginning to spread rapidly. “There’s an expectation now from the viewers to get much better graphics on television,” he said.

 

For Fox, the hope is to incubate the technology in NASCAR this year before expanding it to the network’s other sports properties. Fields said which other properties is still up in the air. “We’ve shown it to producers of other studio content, and they’re all very excited to see how it plays out and how they can use it, so there’s no shortage of interest from all the sports.”