Brawl Game

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Like opposing baseball teams spilling out of the dugout for an on-field brawl, the battle between ESPN and Cox Communications Inc. escalated last week to include a war of Web sites and dueling ad campaigns.

In the latest volley in an increasingly nasty fight, ESPN kicked off a major print and radio ad campaign in Cox's biggest markets, explaining its position in its dispute with the cable operator.

ESPN also debuted a new Web site, Keepespn.com, which warned that Cox plans to move the sports network onto a tier that will cost consumers more.

Cox quickly swung back, as both it and ESPN have done lately as they spar back and forth in their increasingly acrimonious clash. Late last week, the cable operator was running its own ads to counter ESPN's media campaign.

Last Thursday, for example, Cox ran full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register. One of the ads used a granny wearing a catcher's mask to set forth Cox's argument that not everyone wants to watch sports on TV or bear the cost of ESPN.

In this most recent chapter of the ESPN-Cox saga, the sports programmer basically went bare-knuckled with its Web site. The site not only sets forth arguments against possible tiering by Cox but — in a particularly cruel cut — also provides information about how to buy a satellite dish from DirecTV Inc. or EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network.

In conjunction with the new Web site, ESPN introduced an ad campaign in Cox major clusters: Phoenix; Wichita, Kan.; Oklahoma City; Las Vegas; Norfolk and Northern Virginia; Providence, R.I.; New Orleans; and San Diego and Orange County, Calif.

For example, ESPN ran ads in newspapers such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Register in southern California.

Pop-Up Tactic

ESPN also placed pop-up ads on its much-viewed ESPN.com site, linking to the new Web site. An ESPN spokeswoman said that tactic was aimed at Cox markets, but a caller to Multichannel News from Denver (a Comcast Corp. market) last week reported getting such a pop-up message.

"Cox's attacks on our company and our position and our brand have not ceased," said Sean Bratches, ESPN's executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing. "They continue unabated in the marketplace. And it's a significant campaign they're undertaking that is not telling the whole story. So we felt compelled to talk to the consumers directly and give them all the facts."

ESPN and Cox have been locked in an unusually public battle as the MSO's affiliation deal with the programmers nears its expiration, at the end of March next year. Cox CEO Jim Robbins has been a vocal critic of ESPN's annual 20% rate increases, with the MSO complaining its monthly per-subscriber license fee for ESPN is a pricey $2.61.

Cox even created its own Web site (www.makethemplayfair.com) to explain its position to consumers.

The home page of ESPN's new rival Web site says "Don't let Cox Cable take away your SportsCenter," and then rotates in the titles of other marquee shows, such as NFL Prime Time, Sunday NFL Countdown and Outside the Lines.

"Cox Cable wants to rip ESPN from your basic cable lineup," the Web site says. It also claims that Cox would charge extra for a tier with ESPN, and claims that consumers would then be forced to buy or rent set-top boxes from Cox at $4 per month.

ESPN's new Web site garnered 8,000 registered users and more than 100,000 page views its first day.

The ESPN print ad campaign broke last Wednesday, with the radio spots set to have started this past weekend. Bratches wouldn't say how much ESPN is spending on its ads, but he did say that the campaign would be ongoing.

Ad Says: Call Cox

On the newspaper side, for example, ESPN ran a three-quarter page ad in the sports section of the Register. That ad told consumers that if they want ESPN to stay on basic they should call Cox, and then gave the main phone number for Cox's Orange County headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Cox reacted quickly to ESPN's attack, with a voice-mail message at its affected systems and, later, with print ads.

On Wednesday — the day the ESPN ads broke — callers to Cox's Orange County systems were transferred to a mailbox, which explained the operator's position on anticipated ESPN rate increases. The recording, on the mailbox at the extension for Leo Brennan, vice president and general manager, explained that Cox is not removing ESPN from the line-up.

The female voice added that ESPN's rates have increased 20% with each of the last few contracts. Cox is committed to ending these increases, she added.

The recording directed callers to Cox's Web site for more information and also told callers, "If ESPN won't agree to reasonable prices, they may refuse to let Cox carry their programming."

That voice message was also being used at the other Cox systems being targeted by ESPN.

By Thursday, the day after ESPN's print ads ran, Cox was running its own newspaper ads. Cox wouldn't say which markets the ads ran, but there were appearing, at the very least, in Orange County and San Diego.

Cox Ad Text

In one of its print ads, Cox pledges, "We will do everything in our power to keep ESPN available to you at a reasonable price."

The Cox ad also says, "Some people love watching sports. Others don't. But everyone pays for ESPN. In fact, more of your monthly standard cable bill payment goes to cover the cost of the major sports networks than for any other channels."

An ESPN spokeswoman disputed Cox's ads, saying "We're not surprised Cox is again misleading customers." For example, she said, ESPN does have a proposal to operators on the table that does not mandate 20% annual rate increases.

Officially, Cox also had a brief response to ESPN's "attack ads" on its Web site.

"ESPN is merely trying to deflect your attention from the real issue: their 20% price increases, inflicted on cable and satellite consumers every year for the past five years," Cox said in its statement. "In a world where the average American received a 4% increase in his paycheck this year, and savings accounts are earning 1% interest — how can ESPN continue to justify 20% increases, year in and year out?"

ESPN officials called their Web site and ads "the first phase of an information campaign" in Cox markets.

"In our almost 25-year history, we've never been publicly attacked in this manner," Bratches said. "We have negotiations going on with virtually every other operator, which are being conducted in a private forum. Cox is unwilling to do that and, as a result, we felt compelled to respond. If Cox elects to drop ESPN from its cable systems at the end of our agreement, we will be activists in terms of communicating to our fans alternative means to access the ESPN service."

ESPN Radio Option

ESPN also has access to the ESPN Radio network, which has affiliate stations in Cox markets, according to Bratches.

"We are going to do everything in our power within our company to ensure that our fans continue to have access to the ESPN service," he said. "Sports as a genre is the largest entertainment genre in the United States: 87% of Americans are sports fans, and according to Nielsen … over 70% of Cox subscribers are ESPN viewers."

In the past few weeks, Cox and ESPN have also each released conflicting studies on how sports programming affects cable bills.

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