When it comes to carrying sports on television, everybody wants to get into the game.
Networks whose niches lie outside the lines of the playing field are toiling to find the crossover point to leverage the universal popularity of athletics.
What savvy programmer wouldn't want to hover like a pilot fish next to a killer brand like the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys? According to Future Brand, a brand-tracking service, fan loyalty, merchandise sales and annual revenues make "America's Team" worth $274.3 million a year.
Who wouldn't want to find a way to elbow to the table to snitch a serving of the ever-expanding Olympics advertising pie? NBC raked in $720 million in network ad sales during the Salt Lake City games earlier this year, the most ever for a Winter Olympics, according to CMR.
Programmers said they're always looking for ways to bring sports into the programming mix, either by negotiating directly for event rights, or through creating new categories.
FOOD CHOWS DOWN
Sports content has surfaced in places you wouldn't readily expect. Sports-related specials are among Food Network's Top 10 ratings performers, for instance.
The home for gourmets and gourmet wannabes does 60 specials a year related to sports and athletes. They are season-specific, such as the recent Ball Park Cafes, a tour of baseball-stadium cuisine.
"I can't tell you how popular that was," said Food senior vice president, programming and production Eileen Opatut. She declined to proffer specific ratings numbers, but noted that Food is very pleased with sports-themed programming.
"It just shows food is a part of all of our lives," she said. "We just see sports through food-colored glasses."
Specials have included on-air tailgate parties, scheduled close to Super Bowl telecasts. Opatut said statistics show that the Super Bowl boasts the largest number of non-holiday parties.
Food Network offers party tips and recipes to free hosts from the franks-and-beans mentality.
Themed programming has been linked to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), the NFL and the National Basketball Association. The network's closest working relationship is with the NBA, Opatut said.
Food has followed athletes into their kitchens and interviewed their personal chefs.
"I think the leagues see it as a real benefit," Opatut said of the shows. "It reaches other kinds of viewers, encourages female fans and humanizes the events and their players."
A HISTORIC DRAW
From its inception, sports have provided the key nutrients that helped to grow television viewership. The 1947 World Series ignited interest in the new technology and caused the fast rise in television penetration. Watching is a 50-year-old habit for some viewers.
"Baseball, football, basketball — these all predate TV," said Lifetime Television senior vice president, research Tim Brooks, also a television historian. "You can't manufacture that kind of loyalty."
When sports expanded to cable in the 1980s, it was a godsend for game-deprived fans, Brooks said. But its use can be a double-edged sword, according to Brooks.
"Sports brings a guaranteed, passionate audience, whereas developing shows is a chancy proposition," he said. "The downside? It's a defined group and no one else cares."
His network has proved that sports are not a cure-all. Lifetime once carried the Women's National Basketball Association.
"The WNBA was not what viewers expected of us," he said. "We do better with programs about players. Lifetime is a brand with emotional connections, relating to people. The WNBA did OK … Fans enjoyed it, but other viewers didn't cross over."
Lifetime would do better with carefully chosen athletes as subjects for such signature shows as like the Intimate Portrait
"Viewers want sports in logical places," he added, noting occasional sports programming with strong female appeal, such as figure skating, is a good fit for Lifetime.
The WNBA's main outlet is now ESPN2. Women's network Oxygen also carries games.
Oxygen hopes its experience with sports — especially the WNBA — will run counter to that of Lifetime. It's only recently changed its strategy, opting to pursue and program higher-profile sports, said Oxygen Sports president and executive producer Lydia Stephans.
Oxygen will carry 11 WNBA telecasts, slated for Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EDT. The contract extends through 2003 and includes some playoff action.
When the deal was announced, Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne said the WNBA's athletes personify the "Oxygen woman."
"Not only are they truly great athletes, but they are bold, funny, smart and extraordinary individuals who symbolize what Oxygen represents to viewers and what all women aspire to become," she said.
Stephans knows how important sports are to women. She was an Olympian in speed skating at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. During a decade at ABC Sports, she worked herself to the vice president's chair, becoming the first woman to do so.
So far, the WNBA "performs well with very little promotion," she said. But Oxygen intends to take a page out of the "big boys's" marketing handbook by giving the WNBA a full-court press, including participation in off-season promotions and content.
"Women's sports are not necessarily high-profile, but they have high-profile stars," she said. The network will take advantage of the drawing power of leaders like Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks and forward Chamique Holdsclaw of the Washington Mystics. A sign of Holdsclaw's growing fame: she's one of two female athletes to have a sneaker named after her, Nike Inc.'s BBMiqueShox.
Oxygen will be a true partner to the sports leagues it carries, which also include the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP).
Five AVP title matches are on Oxygen's schedule. Other events include some Women's Tennis Association matches and the Ladies' Professional Golf Association's Canadian Open.
Oxygen's games will be promoted by the other networks that carry those leagues, such as ESPN.
WE: Women's Entertainment will get in the game this August, when it debuts an original series on extreme sports participants. Winning Women
will launch Aug. 8 at 7 p.m.
Hosting the show will be Alexandra Paul, formerly of Baywatch
and herself a triathlete. It will feature segments on such sports figures as U.S. women's national team soccer star Brandi Chastain, rock climber Tori Allen and mountain biker Tara Ilames.
Sports networks today bemoan the killer rise in costs of sports programming rights. But the entertainment networks that dabble in sports say they've found several ways avoid the sticker shock.
They focus on underexposed sports that can't command the kind of the multimillion dollar deals that major leagues can. Or they deal exclusively with regionally popular collegiate athletics entities.
"Sometimes, we have an advantage," said USA Network vice president of sports Kevin Landy. "Unlike full-time sports networks, [sports is] special here, a major event. We don't have to pay full-time rates." said Kevin Landy.
LOTS OF GOLF
That doesn't mean the network doesn't have some tonnage, at least in golf. USA — which has carried the prestigious The Masters golf tournament for 21 years, and the biennial Ryder Cup since 1989 — will televise the largest number of Professional Golfers' Association events on TV in 2003, when its schedule doubles to more than 30 tournaments from 15 this year.
"It's a big commitment, with shoulder programming, live Sunday morning coverage of the final round, a 'pre-game,' if you will," he said.
The final round preview show "won't set any ratings records" but it's designed to inform golf fans while entertaining casual viewers, with information on fashion, golf vacations and the like, he said. USA plans a very large, well-orchestrated marketing push for the PGA by year's end, Landy said.
USA has also been a longtime player on the tennis court, as cable home to the U.S. Open. The network is in the last year of its contract for this nation's Grand Slam event.
The network lost the rights to the sport's second major, the French Open, this year
"We put an offer on the table and the French though they could do better. Eventually, they came back to us, but the offer was off the table. They ended up scrambling," Landy said. (ESPN ended up with the deal.)
WIDENS USA DEMOS
Sports puts USA in front of a broader demographic, since it draws young males in addition to the traditional 24-to-54 segment, said Landy.
The network has also expanded into the sports-entertainment realm. During the last two years it has carried Eco-Challenge, an extreme, multi-disciplinary team endurance race from Survivor
producer Mark Burnett.
"It's gotten a lot of critical acclaim," said Landy of Eco-Challenge, adding that it draws well because it is episodic and, with the personalities involved, viewers develop a real rooting interest.
At a non-sports-centered network, a league or event can benefit from an uncluttered showcase. For a network, the plus is the ability to walk away if rights are too costly.
"We're more focused on striking deals that make sense for us. We're not in sports for sports sake," said Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus, which earlier this renewed its contract with the National Basketball Association for six years at some $2.2 billion.
But four years ago Turner sports bailed on its deal with the NFL.
"Great ratings, but the costs are something we just can't justify," he said. CBS, Fox, ESPN and ABC cut a deal to split the rights for a cost of $2.2 billion per year through 2006.
Still, Turner's investment is spread across multiple sports. Lazarus said Turner Sports fills 5 percent of the networks' programming hours.
Lazarus said he uses three criteria to select the programming.
"Do viewers care about it? Is it something our operating partners need to provide to their constituents? And can we market it?" he said.
FOOTBALL ON TBS
TBS Superstation carries 90 Atlanta Braves baseball games and this fall will add college football from the Big 12 and Pacific-10 conferences. Those sports compliment the mix of acquired series and sitcoms geared to the young adult contemporary audience TBS seeks, Lazarus said.
Turner Network Television will carry major NASCAR races through 2006, as well as the NBA, PGA Grand Slam and the Wimbledon tennis championship.
Those are more dramatic sports, in keeping with TNT's "We Know Drama" marketing identity, he said.
The Braves also show up on Turner South, along with the National Hockey League's Atlanta Thrashers and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, matching the regional network with teams of regional interest. All three of those clubs are owned by parent AOL Time Warner Inc.
The Turner properties don't pretend to be 24 hour sports networks, nor are they "default" networks. People with special interest seek out their sports on Turner channels, he said.
A focus on under-represented sports — a niche within a niche — has proven successful for the Major Broadcasting Corp. Network. The urban-and-family network spends 30 percent of its programming budget on live coverage of sports from traditionally black colleges.
These collegiate sports are the only programming property that can reach the multiple generations who live in each targeted household, said vice president of operations Travis Mitchell, vice president of operations.
MBC FANS WANT IT
"We've seen response go through the roof. We're really building a brand off it," he said. "We are able to deliver to our audience a quality product, then go in the market and market to satisfy our advertisers, building brand equity with event promotions."
MBC has the rights to games from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, events from which are produced in partnership with sponsor Verizon Communications; the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference; the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association; and the Southwest Athletic Association.
"Sports has become our most requested programming," he added.
The network benefits from the ability to exploit the sports contacts of some of its A-list investors, including boxer Evander Holyfield and baseball veteran Cecil Fielder.
Fielder hosts a popular show called Sports Lifestyles
that can boast some high-profile, hard-to-get guests. Because of his connection with his guests, Fielder has gotten guests to open up, said sports producer Larry Lawson.
The baseball vet got Yankees manager Joe Torre to talk about his abusive childhood and retired baseball and football star Bo Jackson to grant a rare interview. ("He's living happily with his three kids and still has all his money," Lawson said.)
Fielder had an easier time nabbing an interview with the seventh-round pick in this year's MLB draft. The Milwaukee Brewers-bound candidate is Fielder's son, Prince; MBC shot tape of him at home as he was selected.
Other sports-programming topics include black hockey players, the National Women's Football League and baseball's Negro Leagues.
"The CBSes of the world wouldn't do these stories," said Lawson, a veteran of Black Rock. "You'd have to have a hook.
"At MBC, you can do it 'just because.' They see the value of carrying on an intelligent conversation."
NEW SPORT: SLAMBALL
But some programmers believe if you're not interested in buying into a franchise, you should make one up. That's the route TNN: The National Network will take in this fall's attempt to build a new sport, called Slamball.
"Our niche will be sports entertainment," said TNN executive vice president and general manager Diane Robina.
When Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks took over TNN, the network had NASCAR (which it lost to Fox, FX, NBC and TNT) and other racing events, as well as the Arena Football League. Executives soon concluded that network wasn't big enough to be a player in major sports, she said.
TNN execs hope to trap lightning in a bottle twice, duplicating the popularity of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. through a newly developed sports franchise.
will be played on an area the size of a basketball court, with a spring-loaded floor and trampolines near the baskets. Four-man teams will compete in the 16-minute games, which combine elements of football, hockey and soccer.
The sport was developed by Mason Gordon. Pat Croce, former president of the Philadelphia 76ers, will serve as commissioner.
"We're picking up players from street basketball, from football …we're sure that a couple of stars will bubble up," Robina said.
TNN will package the new sport in a "Slammin' Saturday Night" with WWE programming and another sports/entertainment hybrid, Robot Wars.
Creating a franchise is not cheaper than buying rights, she conceded.
"It will never be cheaper to develop something," she said. "But our driving force is to find content that speaks to our audience."
TNN has an interesting strategy, but it's one that has doubters.
"You can't manufacture the kind of loyalty that started as kids, following their favorite stars," said Brooks, making reference to sports fare in general. "To recreate that has been impossible up until now."
WWE has been successful, but that's entertainment, not sports, he noted. And such a hybrid can go to far, Brooks added, citing the late and unlamented XFL football league — a WWE joint venture — as an example.