Getting Into the Game

How Sports Has Cracked Entertainment Network Lineups

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There’s no doubt that sports programming is scoring with television viewers, as high-profile live events generate record-breaking ratings for cable sports networks.

While entertainment networks such as Esquire Network, Spike TV and IFC can’t compete with ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network for the TV rights to ratings-rich National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League or National Basketball Association games, executives said, entertainment shows that use sports as a backdrop are drawing the elusive, live-sports-loving male viewer who wouldn’t ordinarily tune in.

And other networks, such as BET, AXS TV and Spike TV, are looking to pin down avid sports fans through live ring-sports content that appeals to younger and older viewers.

“We all look up to ESPN as amazing TV-sports storytellers,” Matt Hanna, head of original programming for NBCUniversal’s Esquire Network, said. “If we can come close to that type of storytelling that ESPN does, it would go a long way with our audience.”


It’s hard to dispute the viewer appeal of sports, with its unpredictable drama, intrigue and action. Nor is it easy to deny the ratings punch packed by live, major league pro sports or tentpole international events.

Just this year, marquee sports telecasts have set several cable programming and sports ratings records:

♦ ESPN’s January Ohio State-Oregon College Football playoffs championship game drew a cable programming record 33.6 million viewers.

♦ TBS’s April 4 telecast of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four Kentucky-Wisconsin national semifinal drew the biggest-ever cable audience for a college basketball game, with 16 million viewers.

♦ Fox and Telemundo’s combined 26.7 million viewers for the July 5 United States-Japan Women’s World Cup soccer match was the biggest soccer audience in U.S. television history.

Rights to those high-profile sports properties — long-term deals for the NBA, MLB and the NFL all top the $1 billion mark— are unattainable for most entertainment-based cable networks.

Instead, those networks are capturing the interest of avid fans by infusing sports themes into reality and scripted shows. FXX’s comedy The League, which kicks off its seventh and final season Sept. 9, has been successful in mining fantasy football for laughs.

BET just completed its eighth and final season of its football-themed comedy The Game. The series, which uses a fictional team as a backdrop to depict the relationship between athletes, their friends and their families, still holds the record for the most-watched cable comedy series premiere, having drawn 7.7 million viewers in 2011.

HBO recently green-lighted a second season of its football-themed dramedy series Ballers, starring actor and WWE personality Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The series, a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of pro football players after they hang up their cleats and retire, drew 8.9 million viewers across HBO’s branded platforms for its June 21 debut, the network said.

“There are a lot of reasons why this show is as popular and loved as it is,” HBO president Michael Lombardo said during last month’s Television Critics Association summer tour in Pasadena, Calif. “There’s good writing, it deals with football, it’s set in Miami … but the pre-eminent reason is the heart and soul of the show, which is Dwayne Johnson.”

Starz last week (Aug. 22) launched the second season of the LeBron James-produced comedy series Survivor’s Remorse, which chronicles the meteoric and often-chaotic rise of a young basketball star navigating the ups and downs of newfound fame.

Even music-themed Fuse has strapped on its sports helmet with weekly coverage of the female football-oriented Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League), in which scantily clad women block and tackle their way to the championship.

Esquire’s Friday Night Tykes series follows a different kind of football player — kids participating in the Texas Youth Football Association. It’s the network’s most-watched show among total viewers and among advertiser-coveted 18-49-year-olds. More importantly for Esquire, its audience is nearly 60% male.

Sports-themed programming is one of the best genres for networks looking to build up viewer recognition — particularly among young men — to start with, Hanna said.

“There was never going to be any live sports component on the network, but we did think that sports storytelling could be an important foundational pillar to build our network around, so we were very aggressive about identifying what types of stories that might be,” Hanna said. The network is already exploring a spinoff of Tykes, he added, although he would not provide specific details.

Esquire Network has stayed aggressive in the sports genre, earlier this month launching The Agent, a reality series in which four football agents look to recruit the next NFL superstars. The network’s live coverage of July’s Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, was up 17% among adults 18-49 and 23% with men 18-49, compared to last year, according to Hanna.

IFC this October will take to the ice with Benders, which follows a team of friends bonded by their irrational obsession with their awful men’s ice hockey team.

Christine Lubrano, IFC’s senior vice president of original programming, said that a friendship-themed comedy set against a sports backdrop will hopefully appeal to men and women.

“I think when you have a show that’s surrounding a team or a sport, that camaraderie shines though and becomes very identifiable to a larger audience,” Lubrano said.

While the network doesn’t have any major plans for future sports-related shows, Lubrano said the Jim Serpico and Tom Sellittiproduced Benders would provide IFC with some sports-infused action that will differentiate it from the network’s other comedy programming.

“If there is a good framework for a show — hockey being the framework for this show — that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.


Not every entertainment network is content with watching from the bench when it comes to live sports programming. Spike TV, AXS TV and BET have recently added live boxing and mixed martial arts programming to score with male viewers.

BET last month partnered with Roc Nation Sports to televise nine live boxing cards over the next 18 months, as it looks to broaden its reach beyond African-American women, network officials said.

AXS TV features live mixed-martial arts content on a weekly basis as part of a Friday-night block of sports fare that falls under the “AXS TV Fights” banner. While the music, film and documentary-focused network is not rated, network executives say that the live sports block generates high social-media engagement from young males discussing the matches.

AXS TV Fights CEO Andrew Simon said the network uses its block of sports programming to promote its non-sports-related shows to an audience that doesn’t regularly tune into the 42 million-subscriber service.

The popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship female titleholder Ronda Rousey is attracting more women to AXS TV’s live fight programming, he added.

“Almost all of our MMA, kickboxing and Muay Thai events feature female fighters as the sport continues to thrive across all demographics,” Simon said. “That said … [the sports block] definitely attract a male-skewing audience to the network.”

Spike TV earlier this year teamed with boxing promotion company Premier Boxing Champions on a monthly series of live boxing shows through 2016. The network paired the boxing shows with its monthly Bellator mixed-martial-arts shows to create a Friday-night block of live sports programming that’s resonating with its young, male viewers.

Spike’s sports block has been particularly important in maintaining the network’s young male viewership as it tries to expand its reach among women with original series and such miniseries as Tut, Spike TV senior vice president of sports and branded entertainment Jon Slusser said.

“We are still keeping those young males, but what we’re also seeing is we’re expanding on that base, including bringing in older and diverse viewers with our sports programming,” he said.

Given sports’ continued strong ratings performances, executives said they’ll keep looking to add its action and drama to any and all types of programming.