Bob Thompson began his career in cable in 1981 as a marketing rep for Storer Communications outside Portland, Ore. Over the years, he took on increasing responsibilities across an array of disciplines from installation and operations to ad sales and negotiations, before jumping in 1989 to the content side as general manager of Prime Sports Network in Denver. Liberty Sports then put him in charge of nine RSNs and in 1996 he became executive VP/GM of Fox/Liberty Networks, which co-owned the services.
When Fox took ownership, Thompson climbed the ladder to his current position as president of Fox National Cable Sports Networks, where he oversees operations for Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, Fuel and its holdings in the Big Ten Network JV, among other domestic and international networks.
At month’s end, Thompson will step away and serve as a consultant for Fox. He spoke with MCN’s Mike Reynolds about the TV sports landscape.
MCN: Was there a tipping point when sports, which had been the province of broadcast stations, went to RSNs?
BOB THOMPSON: I don’t know if there was any one deal, but I think over a couple of years in the early to mid-90s you had the advent of some of the “smaller” broadcast networks, be it UPN or The WB. And you just saw more and more of the pure independent stations going, as well as the increase in salaries for players and the owners looking to figure out a way to fund those salaries.
MCN: As you look back at the rights deals, what’s been your philosophy and the toughest negotiation?
BT: Our philosophy overall was to provide the teams with competitive rights and superior service. And that means helping them sell tickets, helping them do whatever it takes to be as successful as they can be. Do we have to get the last nickel off the table? No. And I think ultimately as long as everybody walks out of the room feeling they’re a winner, those deals over time tend to turn out to be pretty successful.
Toughest negotiation? Hard to say. I think probably one of them was with the Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros. [The clubs were looking to form their own network in 2004, but ultimately renewed with FSN Southwest, now FS Houston.] We were dealing with each team as well as the entity that the team had formed. So it was complicated, a little bit of a three-tier chess game all going on at once.
MCN: The most challenging, or the most satisfying things that you’ve done over the course?
BT: Certainly any of the new network launches or RSNs. Being on the board of the Golf Channel, to see that thing go from very small to very large. Certainly the Big Ten Network, which is really sort of a bit of a new concept. You know, it’s a regional channel but it’s a national channel.
MCN: Fox RSNs and their affiliates are in 82, 83 million homes. What more can be done?
BT: With our RSNs, we’re concentrating more and more on the localness of them. That’s what the viewers want, that’s what the advertisers want and that strategy for us has sort of been paramount from day one.
The next thing is certainly all the new-media opportunities out there. It’s going to be something that’ll continue to grow in the coming years.
MCN: End of the month, retirement, consulting?
BT: Yeah, technically [I’ll] still be in service to Fox for at least a year to advise and consult for them. And beyond that I haven’t really made any other plans. I’ve had a few calls from people who want me to work on maybe a project here and there, but there’s nothing definitive at this point, other than the Fox piece.
MCN: There’ll be a little bit of time to work on the golf game?
BT: I’ll try and get that handicap back into the single digits.