Having conquered the Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington, D.C., markets with local sports on HDTV, Comcast is setting its sights on Chicago, where it will roll out local HD games on its regional sports network covering the Bulls, the Blackhawks, the White Sox and the Cubs.
The MSO sees local HDTV as one more key differentiator versus the satellite competition. And the man in charge to provide the hometown sports hook is Jack Williams, president and chief executive of Comcast SportsNet, a pioneer in local sports HD with its operations in Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington.
That all started with Steven Burke, Comcast president, and his infamous "What would it take?" question, Williams said.
In late 2001, Burke came to Williams and asked what would it take to produce and show all the home games of Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia in HDTV. Williams, a long-time veteran of PRISM, Spectacor and the local Philadelphia sports scene, went to work.
The first thing he discovered was that no HDTV production trucks existed. "We worked with Sony and designed a truck that was all fiber and completely HD," he said. "We did our first game in February 2003. Since then, we've been running the truck back and forth from Philadelphia and D.C. to as many home games as we possibly could."
The list included the Flyers, the 76ers and the Phillies in Philadelphia; the Baltimore Orioles; and the Capitals and the Wizards in Washington, all accounting for some 200 home games in total.
As new stadiums and arenas were constructed in those markets, Comcast went to work. It built an HDTV studio production facility at the Wachovia Center, the home of the Flyers and 76ers, freeing up its production truck to concentrate on the D.C.-Baltimore market. The new stadiums for the NFL Eagles and MLB Phillies went up next to the Wachovia Center. Comcast linked all three stadiums with fiber. "We can do all three sports and the post-game Eagles show in HD," Williams said.
The truck also helps Comcast do a smattering of other events in HD, including a few boxing matches and several college basketball games. The total cost of the truck is about $16 million for the two markets, Williams said.
Now it's on to Chicago. "We'll do the Blackhawks, Bulls, White Sox and Cubs," Williams said, totaling 248 home games starting Oct. 1.
"We'll be building a facility there, and doing all the games in HD," he said. The studio will likely be downtown, since the regional sports operation will be spread across three venues: The United Center, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. Fiber links will connect the three venues to the studio, he said.
Williams plans to lease HDTV production trucks in Chicago, a luxury he did not have when he started three years ago.
"We're not in the trucking business," he said. "Our business is networking and production."
The investment, Williams believes, will continue to pay off. Providing sports fans games of their local teams in HDTV is not something DBS can easily replicate. Early results indicate that Comcast enjoys healthy HD penetration in markets where local sports are available in HD. "Comcast believed that or [the company] wouldn't have made the investment," Williams said, looking ahead to the Chicago launch. "The product we'll be able to put together will be phenomenal."