Comcast Corp. in recent years has successfully fielded a number of MSO-branded regional sports networks to add to its already robust portfolio of entertainment and local-news networks. With Comcast SportsNet services in Philadelphia, Washington D.C./Baltimore, Chicago and Sacramento, Calif. — as well as team-based networks in Atlanta and Dallas — the MSO is making a run at category leader Fox Sports Net. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead recently spoke with Comcast SportsNet president Jack L. Williams to talk about strategy and future plans. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: The regional business has been dominated by FSN, but Comcast has launched several regional sports networks over the last few years. What is the reasoning behind the interest?
Williams: The first one was in Philadelphia [seven years ago]. What prompted that was that Comcast wanted to create a regional network, branded as Comcast SportsNet, and they had an opportunity to buy the majority interest of both the [National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers] and the [National Hockey League’s Philadelphia] Flyers.
When the opportunity to expand in the Washington, D.C., area came along, when we were able to buy [Home Team Sports], it basically was the same type of situation, in that Comcast was the largest cable operator throughout the Baltimore/Washington area, and it was a good fit. We decided we could do the same thing that we did in Philadelphia. Chicago is also a similar situation.
MCN: Are you looking to launch more regional sports networks under the Comcast SportsNet brand?
Williams: Not at this particular stage. You know we’re going to be involved in the New York situation. [Editor’s Note: Comcast is teaming with Time Warner Cable and Major League Baseball’s New York Mets to launch a regional sports network in 2006.]
MCN: Will Comcast be an active player in trying to secure rights to the Washington, D.C., baseball franchise before it begins play in April?
Williams: As you know, there’s a lot of discussion going on within the city and in Major League Baseball. Until things are done officially, it’s hard for us to be able to say anything assuredly. Do we want to be involved and make everything work? The answer is yes.
Overall, I think we will handle [new regional sports opportunities] as we have in the past. In Philadelphia, the opportunity was there, and we created the network.
In Washington, the opportunity was there to buy an existing network and rebrand it Comcast SportsNet. In Chicago, a situation occurred where the teams ended up having all of their rights returned to them at the same time, so they came to us and said, 'Would you partner with us to do a new network?’
In Sacramento, we just launched with the [NBA’s] Sacramento Kings, and again it was a situation where we were the dominant cable operator in the market.
The situation with the Kings — which is the only professional team in the market outside of the WNBA’s [Sacramento Monarchs], which we also have the rights to — presented itself, and we took advantage of that.
If those types of opportunities present themselves to us, then we will definitely take a look at it.
MCN: Along with the Comcast SportsNet services, Comcast has developed smaller regional sports networks with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons, as well as one with baseball’s Atlanta Braves. How important are those networks to the portfolio?
Williams: In addition to those networks, there are a couple of others: In Atlanta there’s Comcast Sports South [college sports-based network], that Comcast has done with Charter, that covers a large territory.
In Detroit, Comcast is doing a regional network, but at the moment it doesn’t include pro teams. Again, it’s creating product that they can give to the subscriber base, and there’s certain branding involved.
With the pro football teams, [Comcast is] using it as a digital channel, and they are also using it [to promote] VOD. When you’re dealing with sports teams, I think you’re getting the highest-interest programming there is.
MCN: The NFL is now telling its teams not to launch these local networks until they can figure out how such services can benefit all teams and the league itself. Have they talked to you about this issue?
Williams: I have not spoken to anyone, and I will also tell you that I was not involved in creating those networks. That was done through the cable divisions.
I don’t really think it hurts the plans. From what I’ve read, the NFL is looking for ways to market either its own product and its own network [NFL Network], and they don’t want the teams jumping in without thinking it though and finding ways where we can all work together.
In all probability, you’ll find a way where we can all accomplish what we want to accomplish and work to everyone’s best interest.
MCN: How important are new technologies, in terms of selling those products to Comcast subscribers through sports?
Williams: I think sports lends itself to new technologies like high-definition as much as any product. We’ve been doing games in Philadelphia and Washington in HD, and all of the home games in Chicago will be HD. That’s also the plan for Sacramento. You’re creating one more reason why a customer would want the Comcast service.
MCN: Some observers say your entrance into the regional sports business arena has escalated the prices paid to the teams, with some operators saying it’s beginning to push the cost of regional sports networks into the stratosphere. Are you concerned?
Williams: Certainly we have as much a concern about that as anyone else, but our goal is not to drive the price up but to create compelling product and to maintain price certainty.
MCN: What will Comcast SportsNet look like two to three years down the road?
Williams: We would be interested in expanding as the opportunities present themselves. The first priority would be markets where we are the predominant cable operator. As those possibilities occur, we will be exploring every avenue to be able to expand the product.