TVWeek's Deputy Editor Chris Pursell is exploring the billion dollar business of sports media. Every week he will deliver the latest insights as well as a fresh perspective along with interviews with the biggest personalities in the business.

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March 2008 Archives

ESPN Aims to Build U.S. Audience for Soccer

March 27, 2008 2:14 PM

Beckham? Check.

Major television outlets? Check.

Promotion? Check.

With a full season under its belt as part of the ESPN family, Major League Soccer appears to have the wind at its back heading into its 13th season as a league.

ESPN’s $64 million investment in the sport, in an eight-year deal, features a regular Thursday night time slot and a multiplatform promotional machine feeding audiences with the sport.

Needless to say, there are no more excuses as the world’s most popular sport continues to seek traction with American audiences.

“MLS is one of a number of soccer properties that ESPN is now covering, which includes the World Cup,” said JP Dellacamera, who will be calling play-by-play action for the sport on ABC and ESPN. “I’m encouraged by the way ESPN is talking about covering MLS this year and like the dedication they seem to have for not just the MLS but for soccer as a whole.”

Dellacamera noted that with both the players on the field and the stadiums improving all around the league, it made the overall presentation more impressive for audiences and more likely to draw new fans to the sport.

And then there’s L.A. Galaxy star David Beckham, who should be healthy enough to play this season.

“MLS was growing at a very good rate prior to David Beckham, but anyone who doesn’t think David accelerated the growth of the sport doesn’t understand soccer,” Dellacamera said. “Beckham transcends the sport much like Tiger Woods does for golf and Michael Jordan did for basketball. I think he’s the reason more players want to come here and why more wealthy individuals want to own MLS franchises.”

From a ratings point of view, ESPN earned a 0.2 cable rating/202,000 homes for its 14 MLS games before Beckham joined the Galaxy last year. The night he debuted with the team, ESPN scored a record 1.0 rating and was watched by about 1.468 million people.

Here’s a look at ESPN’s broadcast plans for the league this year.

The company’s high-definition coverage of its 13th Major League Soccer season will kick off with a double-header Thursday, April 3, with the New England Revolution visiting the Chicago Fire at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the San Jose Earthquakes visiting the Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

For the first time, ESPN Deportes, ESPN’s domestic Spanish-language network, will feature a companion telecast of all MLS prime-time Thursday matches, with separate booth commentators. The MLS series will be branded “Jueves por la Noche” for the network’s core Hispanic soccer audience.

The first U.S. over-the-air television network soccer double-header, on ABC and ABC HD on June 29, will feature Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy visiting DC United at noon, followed by the network’s presentation of the UEFA European Football Championship 2008 (Euro 2008) title match from Vienna at 2:30 p.m.

ABC and ABC HD will broadcast the MLS Cup 2008 at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23 from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

ESPN Films Launches With ‘Black Magic’

March 14, 2008 10:52 AM

The debut of ESPN’s two-part, four-hour film “Black Magic” this week is the first production of new division ESPN Films, the latest initiative from the company to bolster its array of programming features into the next decade.

Fancy talk from the sports channel or a creative outlet for filmmakers?

Judging by the powerful story told in “Black Magic,” the answer lies in the strong grassroots connection that lies between sports and society.

“The division was part of [Executive VP of Content] John Skipper’s vision for the whole group,” said Keith Clinkscales, senior VP of content and enterprises for ESPN, who noted the new division has two mandates: develop for theatrical releases and develop for the channel. “He felt that there were stories to be told that weren’t just great sports stories but also awesome American stories. ‘Black Magic’ is an example of that.”

The film examines the experiences of players and coaches at historically black colleges and universities from the civil rights era to the present day. The film’s creators sifted through more than 200 hours of footage of classic moments.

“It begins with a great story and examines how sports transposes the entire world of civil rights and what the entire country was going through at the time,” said Mr. Clinkscales. “The discussions of integration and segregation made for a really rich and deep story.”

“Black Magic” marks the first of 10 ESPN Films-branded projects set to air in 2008. Other previously announced titles include “The Zen of Bobby V,” about Major League Baseball player and manager Bobby Valentine; “Hellfighters,” about an against-all-odds Harlem high school football team; “Bud Greenspan: At the Heart of the Games,” about the documentary filmmaker; and “The Streak,” which chronicles the 2007-08 season of the Brandon High School wrestlers and their 34-year win streak. Each of the titles will be televised this spring.

In addition, ESPN Films announced a celebration of the last three decades of sports timed to coincide with ESPN’s 30th anniversary in September 2009. In a project dubbed “30/30,” the company invited 30 filmmakers to each tell a sports-themed story. The one-hour films will begin airing Tuesday nights on ESPN in September 2009 and be televised through 2010. The filmmaker roster will be announced in the coming weeks and will include industry veterans as well as celebrities who share a passion for sports.

“Every sports event is storytelling in real time,” Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, said when the project was announced. “There’s drama in every encounter, as millions witnessed so vividly during this year’s Super Bowl. So it’s no surprise that sports lend themselves especially well to the stories we tell on the screen, in such hit films as ‘The Mighty Ducks,’ ‘Remember the Titans’ and ‘The Rookie.’ I’m thrilled that sports-themed films will now have their own label at Disney and ESPN. We believe this represents a big score for sports fans and moviegoers alike.”

TV Sports Figures Look to Future

March 13, 2008 2:21 PM

The second day of IMG’s World Congress of Sports featured two recent champions with connections to the entertainment industry addressing the crowd—New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch and Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner—but it was the meeting of the minds between arch-rivals that took the day.

The annual conference featured a panel projecting the state of sports media in 2013. Taking part in the discussion were Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports; Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports; David Levy, president of Turner Sports; Adam Silver, deputy commissioner of the NBA; and John Skipper, executive VP of content for ESPN.

Both Turner and ESPN invest heavily in exclusive matches online via their respective outlets PlayOn and ESPN360. Executives from both companies acknowledge that while there is a loyal, sizable audience for the sports that air on the broadband channels, they still are fine-tuning the most appropriate business model for those outlets and television will continue to dominate the spectrum.

Looking forward to 2013, the executives noted they’re bracing for a free-for-all as rights for nearly every single major sport, with the exception of the NBA, will expire in that timeframe. At the same time, they urged caution on “spiraling” rights costs.

While Turner, Fox and ESPN all likely will play major roles in the bidding process for those sports, ESPN’s Mr. Skipper noted that the company would not bid for any of those sports unless it came packaged with broadband content the company could use for its other outlets.

As for sports poised to grow and/or explode in the next five years, soccer and women’s softball were among those the executives thought would be in the best position to grow audiences and brands into the next decade.

Carey Speaks as World Congress of Sports Convenes

March 12, 2008 12:07 PM

The movers and shakers who drive the sports industry took center stage Wednesday at the seventh annual IMG World Congress of Sports in Dana Point, Calif.

The two-day event features CEOs, chief marketing officers and chairmen addressing trends in the business.

The event opened with a roundtable of executives addressing the hot topics of the day before shifting to a one-on-one interview with Chase Carey, president and CEO of DirecTV.

Mr. Carey was quick to acknowledge that while his company was among the first to pick up sports channels such as the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network, the outlets are publicly battling cable companies over carriage fees.

DirecTV has benefited from the cable lockout of some of the sports channels, he said, with its subscriber growth jumping in those regions.

However, he said DirecTV's economics are similar to cable's and that the company is not "immune" to the costs of carrying the channels, noting that retransmission rights and sports costs were among the two biggest challenges for DirecTV.

Mr. Carey also said DirecTV is looking to be more active in acquiring broadcast rights for future sports events as well as sports with more international appeal, such as cricket and soccer.

NBA Ratings Seeing Major Bounce Year-to-Year

March 10, 2008 1:20 PM

Don’t look now, but the NBA seems poised to score its first year-to-year ratings gains in more than a decade.

With major-market teams such as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers relevant again, and any one of nine or 10 clubs poised to go for the NBA title this season, professional basketball is unquestionably hot right now. (Of course, sports in general are on fire, in case you didn’t read my article last week.)

That said, a flurry of high-profile moves late in the season has every single national broadcaster that’s carrying the sport moving upward on the ratings charts. On ABC, NBA coverage on ABC is earning a 2.5 rating, up 9% in households from 2007, and it’s up 20% in share. On cable partners ESPN and TNT, the NBA has grown 10% year-to-year in rating, earning a 1.1 rating on both channels.

“When we decided to sign up for another eight years of the NBA, we felt as if we were about to catch a wave, and now hopefully it will continue,” said David Levy, president of Turner Sports, which carries NBA games on TNT. “We are extremely happy with the ratings growth we’ve seen from the sport, and remember, that’s with New York not even fielding a contender.”

Another key category that bodes well for the sport is the double-digit growth on all three outlets among men 18-34, where spikes as high as 33% promise that young fans are adopting the sport for, ideally, a lifetime.

“This season was sparked after Boston completed those off-season trades, and suddenly it’s not just the Boston Celtics who were benefiting but the Celtic brand as well,” said Mr. Levy. “For a sport to grow they need those big markets and big brands such as the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls to be contenders. Through the trades we’ve seen this season for the likes of Jason Kidd and Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA is suddenly on the front page of the sports section again.”