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Volume 22 No. 23

Media

When Jeff Zucker sits in the NFL’s offices over the next few months and tries to convince the league to sell him a package of media rights, as league and media business figures expect, he almost certainly will focus on the company’s diverse platforms like Bleacher Report and AT&T stores more than TNT or TBS.

Zucker, who last week was named CEO of WarnerMedia News & Sports, takes over the sports division from Turner President David Levy, who resigned earlier this month from the company. In their few public comments about the role of sports in WarnerMedia’s future, AT&T Chairman, CEO and President Randall Stephenson and Zucker have been open about their desire to remain aggressive in bidding for sports rights, which is music to the ears of all the U.S. sports leagues that are eager to see more deep-pocketed bidders.

While the new company does not have a broadcast network, sports business executives expect it to try to engage leagues and conferences with the wide scope of its assets, which include everything from brick-and-mortar AT&T retail stores and the national DirecTV satellite service to regional sports networks to linear television channels and Bleacher Report. AT&T officials believe the wide scope of their assets will make up an attractive offering for a media company that does not operate a traditional broadcast network.

Before he left, Levy outlined this vision to several sports executives, who expect Zucker to follow a similar strategy.

Jeff Zucker, CEO of WarnerMedia, is entrenched in media and entertainment circles.
Photo: getty images

Now that AT&T’s Time Warner acquisition is official, industry executives expect the company’s conversations around rights negotiations to have little to do with linear television. Imagine how much AT&T could market the leagues and their games in their AT&T stores, of which there are about 5,300. It would not surprise sports executives if AT&T, the nation’s second-largest telecom, starts to load its cell phones with the B/R Live app, which would make that a more attractive place for media rights. What can AT&T do to make mobile connectivity in league arenas and stadiums better, especially with the promise of 5G?

Zucker already has a template for these types of deals. He was president and CEO of NBCUniversal during the 2008 Beijing Games when NBC’s owner, GE, used its Olympic sponsorship and media rights deal to sell industrial products into the closed Chinese market. He is well entrenched in media and entertainment circles.

A Harvard grad who is not afraid to mix things up, Zucker made headlines at a young age. He was the executive producer of the “Today” show in his mid-20s and ran NBCUniversal at 40. He is a force of personality who already is well known to league officials — a superstar executive along the lines of Dick Ebersol, the longtime broadcast executive with whom he worked through the 1990s and 2000s.

Many league executives expect WarnerMedia under Zucker to look a lot like the WarnerMedia that Levy had been touting, at least initially.

Sports executives expect WarnerMedia to emphasize the amount of data that it has, particularly from its DirecTV set-top boxes, that can identify to the second who is watching what and when. They expect Zucker to use DirecTV for the types of megacast features that ESPN has popularized, with different channels providing different views of a game. Turner already has rolled out home-team productions around NCAA tournament games on TNT and truTV. DirecTV could provide even more channels.

They also expect Zucker to tout things like Bleacher Report and House of Highlights, like Levy has done for years. In the past, Turner has sold Bleacher Report to leagues as a place where they can get in front of younger fans.

Even before the acquisition became official, Turner had tried to show off the scope of its offering. On November’s “The Match” with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, for example, DirecTV offered it via pay-per-view, HBO produced a “24/7” show about the competition, and Turner International handled its global distribution. Plus, all of the marketing around the program helped consumers understand what the direct-to-consumer service B/R Live is and where they can find it.

During his meeting with staffers, the Wall Street Journal quoted Zucker telling them that he will be on the lookout for sports “that with the right business development can be developed into new properties that can be owned or licensed.” That means that “The Match” is likely to return and something like ELeague will have a lot of support.

MSG Network will provide an alternate New York Knicks telecast March 17 that will target younger audiences.

The Sunday afternoon game against the L.A. Lakers will be produced by digital sports network Overtime and available on its MSG+ channel, MSG Go app and MSGNetworks.com. It also will be available to New York area residents on a social platform, but company executives were not ready to say which one.

Other regional sports networks have tested alternate telecasts around NBA games over the past two seasons. NBC Sports Washington has produced several gambling-related simulcasts around Wizards games this season. Last year, MSG Network produced a fantasy-related show around a Knicks game. This is believed to be the first RSN simulcast created for younger viewers.

“Most legacy media companies have a hard time reaching younger viewers,” said Zachary Weiner, co-founder and president of Overtime, a sports media company founded in 2016 targeting younger demos. “Our theory has always been that if we built something that kids loved, leagues and teams and players would notice.”

MSG Network will carry its regular coverage of the game. But the alternate Knicks telecast on MSG+ will feature lots of two-box and three-box screens, some stats and plenty of interactivity.

“This is a hybrid of what you see on Twitch,” said Kevin Marotta, MSG Networks senior vice president of marketing and content strategy.

Overtime personality Overtime Larry will work the crowd during the broadcast.
Photo: youtube

One of the things Marotta said that he learned from last year’s alternate telecast with DraftKings was that MSG should not be shy about totally reimagining how the telecast looks — there’s little sense in going halfway.

The alternate telecast will focus on voice and community, Weiner said. Cameron Smith and Monica McNutt will call the game in front of a green screen from an MSG Network studio. A social media personality called Filayyyy, who has 1.3 million Instagram followers, will be on camera providing voice-overs for various highlights. And an Overtime personality called Overtime Larry will interview fans from the arena. During halftime, he will interview Larry Johnson in a segment known to Overtime users as “Lie Detector.”

“The talent will be talking about the game like they are your friends sitting in your living room,” Marotta said. “We want to reach out to the next generation of sports fans. We like to innovate and try different stunts.”

MSG Network will curate social media feeds throughout the game as a way to let fans better interact with the audience.

MSG Networks has an investment in Overtime, as do NBA players Kevin Durant, Victor Oladipo and Carmelo Anthony. Last month, it raised $23 million in Series B funding.

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

A longtime media industry veteran has partnered with Kiswe on an app that eventually expects to provide live sports from the country’s 100-plus historically black colleges and universities.

Curtis Symonds, a former ESPN and BET executive through the 1980s and ’90s, launched HBCU Go earlier this month. The free app will focus on sports, education, entertainment and campus life.

Eventually, Symonds hopes that the app will spawn a linear television channel that would be called HBCU TV. Several years ago, Symonds was out in the market with an idea for an HBCU television channel. After early interest from Comcast, Symonds was not able to cut a deal.

“I don’t think Comcast felt our content was valuable enough,” he said. “We weren’t able to get a linear TV launch side, which pushed us to the digital side where we can get in the door and the audience.”

Photo: hbcu network

HBCU Go expects to have live football games from some of the colleges up and running this fall. Symonds is in the market looking to pick up rights to the schools’ football and basketball games, which is challenging. With more than 100 schools across several athletic conferences, much of Symonds’ work will be to negotiate with individual schools for the rights, rather than one centralized conference headquarters. Plus, ESPN already owns some of the more coveted rights, Symonds said.

“We’re hoping to continue to work with ESPN so that we can get the second rights to whatever games they don’t pick,” he said. “That will open up a lot of games. They can only do a certain amount of games. There are still more than 100 universities out there. There’s a tonnage of games.”

The plan is to start off slow and pick up rights to games like the John Merritt Classic at Tennessee State, Symonds said.

Symonds’ company, called HBCU Network, owns the app and provides the content and marketing around it. Kiswe built and operates the app. “It’s still in its soft-launch phase,” said Wim Sweldens, co-founder of Kiswe Mobile.

Like many of the conference TV channels that already exist, part of HBCU Go’s pitch will be to have the universities and their students produce much of the content. While football and basketball will be the biggest draws, Symonds also expects to focus on smaller sports.

“But we’re also going to look at producing a lot of it ourselves,” he said. “Baseball, volleyball, bowling, especially track and field — those are big sports in HBCU circles.”

Symonds said the app will provide HBCU schools with much-needed exposure.

“There’s no true destination for the HBCU,” he said. “The HBCU Go app is the start of creating that true destination that people will be able to find what they want on HBCUs.”

The biggest tennis magazine in the country got a new owner two years ago. Now it has a new name and a new look.

Tennis Magazine’s March/April issue features a single image — of No. 1-ranked Naomi Osaka — and no headline. The word “magazine” now appears on the cover of the 54-year-old publication that was acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the parent company of the Tennis Channel, in March 2017.

The redesigned magazine includes upgraded fonts and logos and is part of a plan to more closely integrate the print product with the television network’s brand.

“Tennis Channel serves the most sophisticated and upscale audience in media, and what we’ve done with Tennis Magazine answers that best-of-breed commitment and advances our entire brand,” Tennis Channel President Ken Solomon said in a statement, adding that there will be a “coming digital version” as well.

Senior editor Ed McGrogan oversees both the bimonthly magazine of 600,000 subscribers and the website, tennis.com, which gets the most traffic of any tennis website in the world. Jeff Williams, who joined the network after it was bought by Sinclair for $350 million in January 2016, is the publisher. In a statement, Williams said, “We’re excited about this new chapter in Tennis Magazine’s long, groundbreaking history.”

Naomi Osaka is about the only similarity between the January/February and March/April covers.
Photo: tennis channel

FloSports has signed a two-year media rights deal with FC Cincinnati, the digital broadcaster’s second deal in MLS.

FC Cincinnati, which kicked off its first MLS season earlier this month, had previously signed a two-year deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned channel WSTR Star 64 to distribute its non-nationally televised games over the air in the Cincinnati market.

As part of this new arrangement, FloSports will have the digital broadcast rights to the club’s matches in the Cincinnati media market, as well as exclusive broadcast rights in the markets of nearby Dayton, as well as Lexington and Louisville, Ky. All markets beyond that are covered by MLS’s out-of-market service MLS Live, which is available via ESPN+.

Przemyslaw Tyton and the club lost its MLS debut in Seattle on March 2, falling 4-1.
Photo: getty images

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. 

Jeff Berding, FC Cincinnati president and general manager, said the club would be receiving a rights fee from FloSports and control advertising for its over-the-air broadcasts. The club produces its own games and will share that broadcast on both linear and digital platforms. FC Cincinnati’s first locally aired match will be March 24, an away game at the New England Revolution; its first three matches will each have aired nationally.

“The notion of finding a way to deliver matches on both a linear and digital platform is something the league has been doing very creatively, and we were certainly very comfortable with a similar approach,” Berding said. 

D.C. United recently became the first MLS team to agree to an exclusive digital local deal with FloSports. Two other teams — the Chicago Fire, with ESPN+, and LAFC, with YouTube — have similar deals with other providers. Orlando City, Real Salt Lake and Seattle have deals with separate linear and digital providers in their markets. Several other clubs offer digital access to their broadcasts through their existing local broadcast partner, such as the New York Red Bulls via MSG Network’s app.

Mike Levy, FloSports vice president of global rights acquisition, said that its approach in Cincinnati will be similar to what it is promising D.C. United fans — a deep, behind-the-scenes look at the club with added content they won’t be able to get elsewhere. FloSports launched its soccer vertical, FloFC, last month, and has acquired rights to the CONCACAF Nations League. Subscriptions start at $12.49 a month.