The National Basketball Association and the National Football League — both of which now have digital-cable networks up and running — will soon look to make a splash in the video-on-demand arena.
Leaning more toward value-added, highlights-driven content, the leagues are currently experimenting with operators and satellite providers to determine how best to serve the rabid base of pro-sports fans.
Despite the lucrative nature of sports programming on pay-per-view, neither the NFL nor the NBA are looking at VOD as a big revenue generator in the short-term. Rather, it's a sales tool for their respective TV channels, NFL Network and NBA TV.
"We're looking at it as value-added to our clients and our customers — it's the NFL wanting to do something with our customers for the first time," said NFL Network vice president of affiliate sales Art Marquez.
That position is understandable, given each cable network's limited distribution.
At press time, the NFL Network had reached just two distribution deals — a lone cable deal with Charter Communications Inc., controlled by Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, and an a pact with satellite service DirecTV Inc. NBA TV has digital-tier distribution from Cablevision Systems Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Cox Communications Inc.
NBA TV executive producer Gregg Winik said conversations with operators have been about content and technology and how best to serve viewers. With NBA TV already established in several MSOs, the network is trying to find the best way to bring greater value to operators looking to capitalize sports programming's appeal.
But what are consumers actually willing to watch in a VOD format? Both Winik and Marquez agree that game-highlight packages will initially get consumers to utilize VOD technology.
"We believe that the narrated storytelling packages, in a condensed form, is what NBA TV can deliver to distributors," Winik said. "Other people are doing time-shifting of other events, but for NBA TV its highlight packages that tell stories."
For the NFL, highlight packages work well, given the league's weekly Sunday-afternoon schedule.
The NFL Network is taking a three-pronged approach to the development of VOD product, according to Marquez. During the regular season and the playoffs, the network is offering a weekly highlight package, recapping all games played during the week.
The recaps — 12 to 14 minutes for each game — serve the viewer better than offering a repeat of each average three-hour game in its entirety, according to the network.
Marquez said such offerings provide displaced fans a chance to see a portion of their favorite team's games each week. "If they're living in California and they're a [New York] Jets or Giants fan, this is as close as they can get to that team."
Weekly highlight packages also provide operators with constantly refreshed product, something not normally seen in other VOD services.
The second approach involves more traditional library content that's been in the NFL programming vault and hasn't been seen by most football fans, he said.
The third VOD option is out-of-market pre-season games that operators can offer to displaced fans. Marquez said such games draw strong ratings: last August's rained-out Hall of Fame Game generated a 7.4 household rating, outscoring the 6.5 for ABC's five National Basketball Association Finals telecasts in June.
"Given the ratings, we asked, 'Why don't we try to do some of the out-of-market games via VOD technology for operators?' So we'll test that [next summer]," Marquez said.
Even though NBA TV is up and running on several MSO's systems, the channel has yet to officially sanction any VOD programming.
Winik said the network has conducted several VOD tests with operators to determine how best to offer potential on-demand content, but so far nothing has been formalized.
"We're learning a lot — we're playing with durations, frequency and how personalized the offerings should be," he said.
What the league is leaning toward is a package of highlights that tell the story of the game in a time-shortened manner. The network is working with satellite service DirecTV Inc. to test downloading of game highlights overnight to subscribers with TiVo Inc. digital video recorders.
But NBA TV hasn't ruled out the possibility of time-shifting NBA games on VOD, and is exploring such options with national cable rightsholders ESPN and Turner Network Television.
"We're working system-by-system to determine what the right business model is, but we think there is value to being one click away from getting your [New York] Knicks highlights or your [Philadelphia 76ers] highlights, whether it's a 5-minute or 10-minute service," he said.