ESPN's affiliate-sales executives are projecting that
its uptick in local avails within SportsCenter -- already "selling like
hotcakes" in the first weeks of availability -- should translate into an additional
$100 million per year in ad revenues for affiliates.
In the No. 1 DMA, Larry Fischer, president of Time Warner
CityCable, the ad-sales operation for Time Warner Cable New York City, said SportsCenter
is consistently "one of the most well-sold areas of our system. We get premium rates
At Cable One Inc., vice president of ad sales Ron Pancratz
described the cable-exclusive show as "important to our sales efforts [and] another
arrow in the quiver that allows us to take aim at [local] broadcasters and
newspapers" to boost ad-sales share.
Many other operators and MSOs, however, were unavailable or
unwilling to discuss the sales outlook in their markets for SportsCenter last week.
Among the unwilling were MSO executives who have expressed anger in the past over having
to pay ESPN hefty 20 percent increases in affiliate fees, which they said were not offset
by previous local-avail upticks.
At Adelphia Communications Corp.'s 110,000-subscriber
system in Toms River, N.J., account executive Katie Grow said last week that the extra
inventory has given the system a big assist in adding value to its packages for the
National Football League, National Hockey League and even U.S. Open tennis.
"We live in a big sports county, Ocean County, and
lots of clients gobble up our sports inventory," she added. Until ESPN's move,
"We used to run out of inventory."
Now, Grow said, she's pitching SportsCenter avails
to some nontraditional accounts, as well, such as marinas.
Even without the added inventory, ESPN is by far the leader
in terms of generating ad sales for operators, at about 21 percent. The network had first
promised last year that it would give affiliates one extra minute of local SportsCenter
avails starting this month, for a total of three local commercial minutes per hour.
Those two extra 30-second avails will be available in each
regularly scheduled SportsCenter that runs one hour or more in length, ESPN said.
"In other words," the network said in a memo to affiliates, "half-hour SportsCenters
will not have additional local avails."
ESPN estimated that SportsCenter -- including 28
live hours per week, plus multiple repeats -- accounts for about one-third, or more than
2,800 hours, of the network's annual programming schedule.
At least one MSO source took issue with projections
published elsewhere that this extra local time could generate 10 cents to 12 cents monthly
per subscriber in incremental revenue. Unless all of those avails were consistently sold
out -- and at peak rates -- 7 cents would be a more realistic estimate, he said.
In large part due to its year-round scheduling, SportsCenter
is second only to NFL games as an ESPN local sales engine.
In the fall of 1998, ESPN increased local avails within NFL
coverage by 10 percent and upped avails on ESPN and ESPN2 studio shows and other
NFL-related shows by 26 percent.
All of this largesse is ESPN's way of trying to
deflate affiliates' ire over having to shell out a 20 percent rate hike in the wake
of the network's having paid a hefty $600 million per year for its latest, eight-year
NFL contract, signed in 1998.
Effective March 1, the two new 30-second local units are
replacing time that had been devoted to the network's "SportsCentury Classic
Moments" -- millennium-themed featurettes that concluded their run at the end of
As the network said in a memo to affiliates, "Instead
of converting those 30-second units back to national ad inventory or programming time,
ESPN is providing it to you as local ad inventory."
To help operators, ESPN has sent them "SportsCenter
2000" affiliate kits, including videocassettes, print presentations and other printed
materials. A video clip refers to SportsCenter's avails as affiliates'
With its sports-news show usually sold out on both the
network and local levels, ESPN said, this increase in local avails by nearly 50 percent --
nearly 6,500 additional 30-second units per year -- will give affiliates expanded
opportunities to sell the signature show to clients targeting young, upscale male viewers.
Among categories touted by ESPN as prospects are automotive
and automotive aftermarket; beverages; restaurants; consumer electronics (including PCs);
apparel; financial; and travel.
Pancratz doesn't think the expanded SportsCenter time
will attract new categories, but he felt that it would do well among its usual clientele.
Time Warner CityCable intends to pitch its current SportsCenter
sponsor roster for the additional inventory -- "from financial to dot-coms, anyone
who's after men," Fischer said.
Affiliates should pitch this new time in long-term buys, or
even annual buys, ESPN's kit suggested, rather than one-time-only and run-of-schedule
buys. But Pancratz said his systems would "sell it wherever we can leverage it."
As one idea, ESPN suggested that operators pitch annual
sponsors on backing a "SportsCenter Showcase" featurette, which could
salute local community heroes -- anyone from teachers and volunteers to football teams or
Grow said she just sold an auto dealer on an annual buy
that includes the local-heroes concept.