Avid Fans Fuel Cable Feeding Frenzy

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

By Patricia Riedman

In financially rocky times, people might curb frivolous indulgences—but passions endure. Cable sports networks are proof, with growing audiences and ad revenues that defy the depressed advertising landscape. As die-hard fans and sports enthusiasts revel in 24/7 sports programming and digital content, advertisers realize these are efficient places to reach key audiences.

Viewers could see more than 43,700 hours of live sporting events on broadcast and cable television in 2009, according to Nielsen Co.'s recent report, "The Changing Face of Sports Media." The report credits high-definition content for making the medium more attractive to viewers, while the real-time nature of sports appealed to advertisers, which spent $7.6 billion on sports programming last year.

"Live sports will always have a great place in the entertainment industry," says Steve Herbst, exec VP-general manager, CBS College Sports Network. "I think you've seen from the events over the last six months—be it the Super Bowl, the NCAA tournament or the Masters Golf Tournament—these events still carry the day in many ways. That's why sports is always going to be OK, even in tough economic times."

CBS College Sports Network, a division of CBS Sports, boasts 38 million subscribers, up 38 percent in the past 12 months. CBS College Sports shows rebroadcasts of events that air live on CBS, and it also runs about 300 live events a year from the Mountain West Conference, Conference USA and the Atlantic 10, as well as U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Naval Academy games.

After CBS-TV aired the 2010 NCAA basketball championship game April 5 live during prime time, and Duke beat Butler 61-59 in the final few seconds, CBS College Sports Network did exclusive encore telecasts. Watching the game, "you could write a book about what hung in the balance those last few seconds," Mr. Herbst says. Multiple airings of key games are a way to help us "try to capture the passion of sports for this dedicated fan base."

CBS College Sports connects with its fans on a grassroots level. In 2007, it partnered with Powerade and the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association in a test of eight colleges' intramural sports events. Today 53 schools are posting their intramural footage to a dedicated Web site, cbsintramurals.com/powerade.

Another local initiative is the Alt Games, sponsored by Jack in the Box restaurants as well as "SEC Tailgate," a pregame show that goes on site to the Southeastern Conference football game of the week (with sponsors such as Chili's Grill & Bar restaurants and Dr Pepper).

Fox Soccer is another cable sports network prospering because of its desirable audience and its passion for the sport. Fox Soccer runs the premier soccer leagues including Major League Soccer and Women's Professional Soccer in the U.S., Britain's Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. It's in almost 37 million homes, adding about 1.5 million monthly. It also has the highest concentration of men 18 to 49 among an English-speaking audience in the U.S. through the second week of the second quarter of 2010, according to Nielsen.

David Nathanson, exec VP-general manager, Fox Soccer, says these stats helped attract advertisers such as Procter & Gamble Co.'s Gillette, which inked a six-figure deal to launch its new ProGlide razor. As part of the ad package, which starts June 6, ProGlide "stunt" shaving demonstrations will be shown throughout the day on Fox Soccer as a series of short vignettes starring the hosts of Fox Soccer's weekly call-in show "Fox Football Fone-In."

P&G is "coming to us because of our ability to reach these young male demographics," Mr.Nathanson says.

Fox Soccer is having a banner year for ad revenue, says Mike Petruzzi, VP-ad sales, adding, "We're up significantly year over year. It speaks to the growth of soccer in the U.S."

The biggest soccer event of this year is the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off in South Africa on June 11. While Fox Soccer doesn't own the live programming rights (in the U.S., the English-language broadcast will run live on ESPN), Fox is covering it from the sidelines with "Ticket to South Africa," a nightly studio show recapping the day's games and providing in-depth analysis with soccer experts such as Andy Gray.

The buzz about the World Cup, however, is definitely fueling interest in soccer, Mr. Petruzzi says, as the network reported that its first-quarter ratings were up 71 percent for prime time, according to Nielsen. The network is trying to funnel that interest into events such as the UEFA Champions League, which it runs, with its sibling network Fox Sports showing the championship live fromMadrid in May. In addition, Fox Soccer offers premium footage available online. The majority of World Cup athletes also play in leagues Fox Soccer covers, Mr. Petruzzi says, adding, "We're not a once-every-four-years event."

In March, to satiate its most ardent fans, Fox launched Fox Soccer Plus, a premium soccer channel designed to complement Fox Soccer. Its content includes the Coca-Cola Championship and another English league as well as rugby.

Fox parent News Corp. sees the value and return of the premium product for fans and advertisers, Mr. Nathanson says. "The passion and success for soccer across the globe is making its way in a big way across the U.S."

Another network defying the sluggish economy is the Tennis Channel, which debuted in 2003 and is now in more than 28 million homes, reaching upward of 35 million homes during major tournaments when it does free promotional trials.

The Tennis Channel reports ad revenue up 80 percent in 2009 over the prior year. "We're on track to do the same thing in 2010," says Gary Herman, senior VP-ad sales.

Advertisers expect the high-income consumers traditionally associated with tennis, he says, adding,"These are the people who have expendable income and can still go out and buy new cars and flat-screen TVs. We can reach these viewers."

To date, its business model has focused on wrapping up exclusive on-air rights for matches at each of the major tournaments, including the French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, giving it roughly 3,100 hours of tennis coverage a year. Now it's adding original content, such as "Court Report," a tennis news show it just launched, and tennis news mobile updates.

Especially during major tournaments, Mr. Herman says, Tennis Channel takes an integrated approach to ads, once celebrating advertiser Lacoste's 75th anniversary by creating a short vignette about the history of the brand. For IBM Corp., a Grand Slam sponsor, the Tennis Channel created a half-hour program to educate viewers about IBM's role in making scoring instantaneous and thus "revolutionizing the way people view tennis," he says.

At last year's U.S. Open, the Tennis Channel offered programming segments with limited commercial interruptions, made possible by the advertisers."They loved the idea," he says. "We integrate our sponsors in a way so that they become part of the broadcast."

Reaching a very different demographic is the Sportsman Channel, which bills itself as the place for hunting, shooting and fishing. Those sports represent a sizable category of about 82.4 million Americans, according to estimates by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "And they're not that easy to reach because they're usually in the field," says Sportsman Channel President Willy Burkhardt.

Sportsman Channel's typical viewer is male, age 51, with a median income of $60,000. (About 20 percent of its viewers are female.) The network just passed 25 million households, which Mr. Burkhardt says is enabling it to reach more non-endemic national advertisers in categories such as pharmaceuticals, trucks and beer. Current advertisers include American Honda Motor Co., Progressive Insurance and Bushnell binoculars.

Being owned by InterMedia Outdoors, the largest media company in its category, enables Sportsman Channel to make powerful cross-platform deals, he says. For instance, it recently created a "small six-figure" deal for Spectrum Brands' Repel mosquito repellant in which it created everything from the print ads to a three-dimensional animated mosquito that will appear in the TV spots. The print ads and e-mail blasts carry the line, "Make sure the fish are the only thing biting." Ads kicked off in April in InterMedia's Game & Fish, Florida Sportsman, North American Whitetail and In-Fisherman and run through September. Sportsman Channel also created a sweepstakes for the campaign, which will be promoted online and on TV.

"One of the advantages of being smaller is that we're able to build packages that are multimedia in focus," Mr. Burkhardt says. "We're able to go with on-air, e-newsletter, social networking, magazine—all in terms of an overall campaign."

Sportsman Channel programming runs the gamut from "Angling in America's National Parks" to "Guns & Ammo Television." The channel also has a full conference and events schedule, such as the grassroots initiative "Hunt. Fish. Feed," a national tour to feed the homeless around the U.S. with fish and game meat donated by sportsmen.

Sportsman Channel is "really about the passion that is the American sportsman," Mr. Burkhardt says. "To this day national advertisers tend to clump us with an overall sports audience. That's really changed for us in the last 12 to 15 months. The national buying audience is starting to become familiar with who we are."