3D Not Ready To Emerge As Major Player In TV Sports

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While sold on the virtues of the high-definition format, executives on a Promax/BDA panel here Wednesday afternoon were more guarded in their appraisal of 3-D as a game-changer for sports programming.

Mark Waller, senior vice president sales and marketing for the National Football League said pro football was "a mind-blowing experience in 3D, better than HD." NFL Network simulcast the Oakland Raiders-San Diego Chargers game on Dec. 4, 2008, in HD into select theaters.

Waller said the impediment to broader availability fell to the "relative cost" of consistently delivering a high-quality telecast in the format.

Similarly, ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches said that while the total sports network has various committees examining 3D, it won't really consider the product to be ready for primetime (or other dayparts) until it's "an in-home experience without glasses."

Conversely, HD is a proven winner for the worldwide leader. Bratches said that ESPN's ratings are 46% higher in HD homes: "HD doesn't apply to all shows; it's sports and everything else."

Dana White, whose UFC and WEC ring sports circuits benefit from exposure on Spike TV and Versus, respectively, reported strong pay-per-view trends with HD. White said UFC's HD PPV buys "go up with every fight," even though the cost of the cards is $10 more than in the standard format.

"There are more people with HD sets and HD set-top boxes," the UFC president noted.

Brian Diamond, senior vice president sports and special at Spike, who acknowledged that the male-targeted network was late to the game with HD, didn't see 3D becoming a major factor for TV for another five to 10 years.
The panelists also discussed the impact the recession is having on their businesses, and expressed hope that with the power of their brands they would come out "stronger on the other side."

Bratches said ESPN continues to make investments in content like the Bowl Championship Series and British Open golf. The company's cross-platform approach enables it to leverage these properties across its various platforms, while also amortizing costs. He said ESPN's rating are up, and being pumped by various digital arms, but conceded the sports giant is "feeling the effects of the economy. Our distribution side is solid and ad sales are challenging" at the moment.

Waller said NFL clubs were deep into selling season ticket renewals and that it was "tougher than last year. Tickets are definitely discretionary purchases," he said, noting that 28 of the 32 teams have frozen their prices.

Mark Fein, executive vice president, programming, production and business operations at Versus, said the Comcast-owned national sports service has been looking for more efficient ways to do business and "staying on plan" with such entities as the National Hockey League and WEC, both of which are showing Nielsen gains.
"We're a good value proposition with the ratings and the way we integrate our sports across all platforms," he said. "It's certainly been hard for everyone, but we've hitting with the young male demos. So far, so good."

For his part, White said UFC had not seen a slowdown, noting that business is up 38%, with both PPV and ticket revenue both ahead.

"Folks don't watch UFC alone. Eight to 10 guys kick in for the pay-per-view, the pizza and the beer," he said, posing the query, "Where would we be if the economy" were growing?

The panel was moderated by SportsBusiness Jourrnal media writer John Ourand.