Narrowly target sports networks on the rise

Forget LeBron James or Cam Newton. When it comes to regional sports nets, the biggest stars are increasingly the teams themselves.

In January, ESPN signed a 20-year, $300 million deal to start a network devoted to the U. of Texas. Then, last month, Time Warner Cable scored a 20-year agreement with the Los Angeles Lakers to broadcast most of the iconic basketball team’s games on two new dedicated channels — one in English and one in Spanish — beginning with the 2012-2013 season.

The deals reflect a belief that such narrowly targeted networks can be rewarding investments within the larger world of regional sports networks, though questions remain whether the Lakers (and Time Warner) will choose to go it alone and whether the Longhorns can succeed on their own.

The first RSN was formed in 1984, when the Boston Red Sox co-founded the New England Sports Network with the Boston Bruins hockey team. The model was refined by the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets, who built their YES Network in 2002. According to Forbes, YES infused the Yankees alone with $80 million in rights fees in 2008.

Currently, the New York Mets (with partners Time Warner and Comcast), San Francisco Giants (CSN Bay Area) and Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals (co-owners of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network) are all in the RSN biz.

Beyond those plays in the professional sports world, there has been a lot of action at the collegiate level. This has included the successful launch of the Big Ten Network in 2007 and speculation about nets devoted to the recently expanded Pacific 10 Conference, the Big 12 Conference and, separately, the U. of Oklahoma. While neither the Lakers nor the Longhorns are taking ownership positions, their new networks certainly represent a continued expansion of this focused sports channel market.

The Lakers represent one of the biggest bets yet. Although terms of the deal have not been announced, it seems safe to estimate the pricetag was far greater than the roughly $30 million a year Fox Sports Net was paying the NBA team to televise its games.

Time Warner Cable exec VP and chief programming officer Melinda Witmer expects that after commitments to national television deals, the new Lakers networks will broadcast between 70 and 76 regular-season contests (out of 82) each year. Witmer believes Time Warner Cable’s experience with local programming — the carrier runs 34 channels with what she calls “hyper-local content” — puts the company in a strong position “to serve Lakers fans in a deeper and broader way.”

A broad array of studio programming and other Lakers shows will be central to the channel’s strategy.

Like Time Warner, ESPN plans to build its UT network around what ESPN’s senior vice president of college sports programming Burke Magnus calls “super service” for diehard fans. This means, for example, “treating football in a way that Texas fans are not used to … (with) pre-game and postgame that are more comprehensive than has ever been done before,” Magnus says.

Such an approach will certainly be necessary during football season, as the net likely will have as few as one exclusive live football game per year when it launches in September.

No matter how many live games these channels air, they will be hard-pressed to cover all their broadcasting time with Lakers and UT football games. Even the YES Network, with nearly 130 Yankee games per season, partnered with the Nets in order to offer a deeper programming pool. YES also has offered a mixed bag of other sports over the years.

To that end, a source with knowledge of the Lakers channels’ plans doesn’t expect the basketball team to be the only product slated on the channels for very long, with the Los Angeles Dodgers (see separate story) among teams speculated to be possible potential additions.

Tellingly, Witmer said the new channels will not incorporate the Lakers name into the nets’ titles because their intention is for the programming to be “more broadly about Southern California.”

As for the Longhorns, ESPN can rely on men’s basketball and numerous other sports beyond football to fill hours. Though there haven’t been any specific commitments made, Magnus says the channel intends to cover all of UT’s teams, carrying any games that aren’t already on the air through other broadcasting agreements. ESPN also plans to offer lifestyle shows and even some academically oriented events.

Magnus is optimistic that there will be enough loyalty among Longhorn alums and fans for the network to have broad appeal.

While the channel will initially focus on carriage in Texas, he believes strong markets will emerge in nearby states like Arizona and Oklahoma and even farther west in California. Time Warner Cable’s Witmer also expects there to be an audience of “displaced” Lakers fans outside of Southern California.

If these new nets do succeed, there could be implications for how viewers watch sports on television. Most notably, other pro teams and universities may make the move to stamp their own channel. Chris Russo, head of the independent sports website Big Lead Sports, envisions big brands like USC or the Chicago Cubs (the latter of which via WGN, along with TBS’ Atlanta Braves, helped launch the cable sports era a generation ago) taking that step if able to clear themselves of current deals.

But Russo considers college conferences as the better bet for growth in this area. The Big Ten Network, available in 75 million households, has been popular even outside the Midwest. And while the Big 12 Conference looks to be staying with Fox as its cable partner (ABC has the broadcast deal through 2016), it is reportedly nearing an agreement that will more than quadruple its annual TV revenue to about $90 million per year — and possibly involve a separate, dedicated channel.

Typically, fans — via their cable or satellite bills, pay the freight for such RSNs. At least one expert estimates that distributors will have to pay $3.50 or more per subscriber a month to carry the Lakers. Undoubtedly, some of that cost would be passed on to consumers, who had been able to watch most games via broadcaster KCAL Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net.

In spite of the pricetag, Russo is a big booster of these types of deals. The intense level of coverage beyond games, he says, is the reason why focused sports networks can succeed.

“There is real value in segmented networks or focused networks, particularly those with huge fan bases like the Lakers,” he said. “If fans want to watch Lakers 24/7, they have the option. These fans want to have access to more content, and this specialization gives it to them.”

Some still hedge their bets as to the likelihood of a full-blown mass exodus of teams to tailor-made channels — even if the Lakers and UT perform well on their new platforms. The reason: As is the case with superstar players, there are only a few teams or colleges that have what it takes to be headliners.

“When you really get down to it, the real question in establishing a network is, ‘Where is the risk?’?” says Harvey Schiller, former commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and CEO of the YES Network’s parent company, YankeesNets. “Teams need a certain fee to participate and must consider how much a (stand-alone) network can pay compared to somebody who can bundle it with other programming for a rights fee.”

In the end, according to Schiller, the money may be there for most teams only in rights fees as part of a large package rather than as a more O&O-like marquee attraction.

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