Sports Networks Continue To Bolster Their Broadband Rosters

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Major cable sports outlets ESPN, Fox Sports Net and Turner Sports Interactive continue to expand the broadband content available on their Web sites as a way to extend their TV brands online and to help operators push cable-modem service.

The wide-open nature of the Internet allows sports programmers to augment the TV viewer's experience by adding content including highlights, instant updates and more, and to create new Web-based premium services that reach niche-sports audiences not served by other venues.

Turner Sports, for instance, has entered into a joint venture with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing to produce TrackPass for the NASCAR.com site. That site is close to launching a cable-modem trial for an expanded version of its $4.95 per month audio and video premium service.

Meanwhile, ESPN Broadband with AT&T Broadband several weeks ago quietly launched its own cable-modem trial built around its high-speed content site. ESPN is also working toward a 2003 debut for its EXPN service — a broadband premium Internet-content service based on the network's X Games.

And Foxsports.com has been in talks with operators about local and regional high-speed content.

Turner Sports has reported 88,000 subscribers for its TrackPass service, according to executive vice president and general manager Drew Reifenberger.

TrackPass includes repackaged and original audio and video content from each of NASCAR's televised races. The package includes access to video highlights by race, driver and more, as well as in-car audio and leaderboard and telemetry statistics.

NASCAR's Winston Cup and Busch Series race seasons extend from February through November. Consumers can subscribe to the entire year for $29.95.

Reifenberger said the site changes significantly, "depending on the day of the week." Mondays are heavy with reviews and highlights from the weekend's race. "Thursday and Friday are all about pre-qualifying," he said.

On race day, separate content is available before, during and after the event.

According to Reifenberger, use of the NASCAR.com free site has grown 49 percent this year, the second year Turner Sports has offered the premium service. "We're putting dramatically more content on the home page," he said.

"[Users] are going deeper because they're having a better experience." Over the past year, about 100,000 new unique users have come to the site, which now averages around 444,000 unique users per day, he said.

On days when no races are run, the typical nonpremium subscriber visits the site about eight times a month, with the average visit lasting about 20 minutes. Race day usage by paid subscribers averages close to two hours.

Driving paid subscriptions

Reifenberger said 75 percent of TrackPass purchasers had never paid for Internet content before and 58 percent are broadband subscribers. He said broadband usage at work rises significantly on Friday afternoons, as qualifying highlights are added to the service.

Reifenberger also said 65 percent of NASCAR TV viewers access the Web site during races. "This is the ultimate two-screen experience," he said.

Subscriptions now bring in more revenue than e-commerce, and trail only ad revenue for the site, Reifenberger said. "We're real proud of our subscription service."

Looking to bolster buys for next season, an enhanced product, TrackPass with Pit Command, were being offered free for the Winston Cup circuit's final three races on Nov. 3, 10 and 17. For $50, or roughly 10 cents per covered event, the expanded package will include practices, qualifying and the races themselves from the Busch and Winston Cup series.

The expanded coverage will also showcase a vastly improved leaderboard telemetry component. Instead of giving lap speeds at the end of each lap, the leaderboard will refresh continuously for each car. "You'll be able to sort by driver or leader," Reifenberger said.

He said that cable operator "reaction has been quite good" about packaging TrackPass with modem sales. "The wire and box are not what's magical," he said. "It's the content that you get. We're developing programming with operators now," he said, with trials expected shortly.

Broadband content from Turner Sport's sister service, CNN/SI.com, is part of CNN.com's $4.95 per month subscription service. CNN.com posts about 20 to 30 news stories each day, with a smaller subset of those stories coming from CNNSI.com, Turner Network Sales senior vice president and general manager Kevin Cohen said.

CNN's online video content also is part of Real Network's $9.95 per month SuperPass service.

The site includes updates from various sports reporters and interviews. But the amount of game highlights is restricted by the various sports leagues, he said.

Over time, Cohen said, "you'll see additional services tailored for the medium as opposed to duplicated from one medium into the other." He said Turner is negotiating with the National Basketball Association over what the network will be able to do online for the upcoming season. Turner also recently gained television rights to the British Open, starting next July, which could produce some complementary Internet and TV experiences, Cohen said.

Improving video quality

ESPN has rolled out ESPN Broadband to AT&T Broadband subscribers in Boston and launched a modem-acquisition campaign with the MSO several weeks ago. The sports network also has ESPN Broadband's X Games content on Comcast's Philadelphia systems.

The material on ESPN Broadband's service is designed to sit on edge servers inside a cable operator's plant. That allows ESPN to provide higher quality content and deliver a better user experience, which will ultimately help operators sell modem service, ESPN senior vice president of sales strategy and new media Manish Jha said.

The marketing campaign in Boston started with a mailing to subscribers and was followed by a CD-ROM sampler. ESPN Broadband is bundled in with the MSO's high-speed pricing. Jha believes content like ESPN can help MSOs extend their reach beyond modem early-adopters to the general public.

"The objective is to support acquisition and retention efforts," he said. "If there is compelling differentiated content on the broadband platform, there is the opportunity to extend subscriber acquisition into the mainstream."

Next on the list is EXPN, a subscription-based service built around X games content that's set to launch next year. "We think the niche can support it," Jha said. "But there is a lot of upfront work that needs to go into it. It's incubating on the ESPN broadband service as a section dedicated to action sports."

ESPN plans to offer the service for $4 per month, but will conduct more focus group testing before setting a final price. "We're in active conversations with affiliates," Jha said.

Content for both services will be shipped to edge servers inside a cable operator's plant. "We want people to have the highest quality experience. In broadband, the video quality can suffer dramatically if you go to too high a bit video rate with traditional content distribution networks. "We've chosen the edge hosting model … It creates the highest quality experience."

It also cuts bandwidth costs for operators since more traffic is sent inside their own network.

ESPN Broadband boasts about one to two hours of video at any one time, most of it between 30 seconds, to one minute or two minutes in length. "Several times during the day, we'll update the latest highlights," Jha said. "We have very extensive rights when it comes to college sports, but for the four major professional leagues, our rights are mixed."

The NFL, for instance, doesn't give ESPN much leeway for highlights. "Given where the market is and the economic challenges, it's not wise to invest heavily in rights acquisition, but leverage the rights we have already."

EXPN will have about 130 hours of content at launch, bolstered by X Games archives dating back to the 1995 origin of the franchise. "The EXPN broadband goal is to leverage the archival material," he said. "We intend to dip into the archives and encode high-quality versions at 600 to 700 kilobits bit rates."

'All access' content

Foxsports.com's Web site includes video news and interviews from its various TV shows, select live Big 12 football games, fantasy gaming and a Major League Baseball hitting game, said the site's senior vice president and general manager Ross Levinsohn.

"We focus on the material that's exclusive to us," he said. Like other sports sites, Fox is limited on the number of highlights it can post from professional sports leagues.

Although Foxsports.com has some video on its site, most is included in Real's SuperPass subscription service for $9.95 per month. Fox does sell a standalone subscription product for $6.95 per month.

Foxsports.com currently derives half its revenue from subscriptions and e-commerce and the balance from ads, a departure from the Internet business model of two years ago. "We'll take fewer page views to make this a business," Levinsohn said.

The "All Access" section of Foxsports.com, which currently sports interviews from its NFL pregame programming, The Jim Rome Show
and other Fox TV fare, generates the site's most activity, Levinsohn said. Fox also is looking for original programming for its site.

Some 65 percent to 70 percent of all users have high-speed connections, Levinsohn said. With that, Foxsports.com has started talking to cable operators about packaging its online content with cable-modem service. "We want to help then build the business with them," Levinsohn said.

A key attribute Fox has is the amount of local and regional content it produces, which is figuring into cable operator modem discussions, Levinsohn said.

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