What Hockey Needs, What Soccer is Getting, and Why Sports Cable Ratings Thrive – ESPN

Monday Night Football on ESPN is up over 20% from last season. College football on ESPN had its best year in over a decade, including its most watched game since the 1990’s. The Heisman Trophy presentation reached new high water marks. Last season’s NBA playoffs finished up. During football season ESPN is consistently the highest rated cable network each week, often by substantial margins.

Yes, sports in general and football in particular, are carrying TV ratings across the board, but much of ESPN’s success should be attributed to the marketing machine it’s created. A daily listener to their morning radio show, a few weeks ago I realized all they day on Monday morning is review Sunday’s games and hype Monday nights game, then on Tuesday they spend most of the show recapping Monday night’s game, bringing in a cavalcade of guests. This is not just a recap, its four hours of national radio smacking you in the face. I noticed it because I got sick of listening to it. Then when you turn on ESPN they are live from the sight of the game, it leads Sportscenter for a full 12-hour cycle at a minimum. Go online, same thing. As a more well-rounded sports fan, I was searching for a crumb of baseball coverage from the winter meetings, but nothing – all football, all the time. Even when the MNF game stinks, they still smack you upside the head with it.

Same thing with the Heisman. Cover stories all week, interviews, enough promotions so that you have the time, date, and tag line memorized. However, given how big the NFL is, maybe this would happen anyway, so its last night that really magnifies what ESPN can do. Broadcaster of roughly 90% of the college bowl games, last night ESPN had the less than illustrious Las Vegas Bowl, pitting BYU and Oregon State in what on paper was a decent matchup, but turned out to be a blowout. They moved the top two teams in college basketball to ESPN2 to put the game on the mother ship, then led Sportscenter with Las Vegas Bowl highlights and full coverage from the sight. The Las Vegas Bowl, a 24-point blowout, the lead on a night with NBA action, almost the entire Top 10 in college basketball on the court, and a significant MLB trade? When you have the control to dictate what people watch like they do, its amazing what is possible. If that game was on Versus, you would get a 30-60 second highlight no earlier than two segments into Sportscenter.

Don’t criticize ESPN for it, they are maximizing value of their assets, and the ratings show that people don’t mind. It shows that any sports property not bigger than ESPN, needs to partner with ESPN, notably hockey. ESPN is planning the white glove treatment for World Cup soccer in 2010, and its almost a guarantee that the ratings will set new records for soccer in the US. In the midst of their coverage, its also a guarantee that the NHL playoffs will get buried as ESPN goes double-barreled with World Cup and NBA playoffs.

It’s not the first time I’ve brought up this subject, but I think its worth noting now as ESPN’s tailored programming and the resulting ratings reached new heights this fall, at a time where hockey is more lost in the media landscape than ever before. They need to get on ESPN, they need to get on now, and they need to let ESPN show them how to market superstar athletes to the public.

College Athletics Pipedream: Revenue Sharing

In the past month two D1-AA football programs from the Colonial Athletic Conference closed operations, citing costs – Hofstra and Northeastern. Both schools have a long gridiron history, and in Hofstra’s case, at least three fairly successful NFL players in the past 15 years. Within the same few weeks, Notre Dame paid more to fire its coach than the $4.5 million Hofstra says it costs to run the football program annually. The Irish also hired a coach, UConn extended basketball Coach Jim Calhoun’s contract to an annual salary above that $4.5m, and countless bowl games will make payouts to each school more than enough to cover those same expenses. Something is truly wrong with this picture.

It’s no secret that escalating costs related to facilities, coaches salaries, and general operations for each team combined with a growing chasm in revenue have created a well-defined class system in college athletics. The Knight Commission continues to study the topic and publish insightful research and editorials, but the problem is not going away. The impact on non-revenue sports has been seen or the past decade or so. Now the epidemic is spreading to major sports at low revenue schools. The next step is mid-major programs.

Hmm, increasing disparity in wealth leading to an increasing disparity in performance, and then feeding itself into a vicious, destructive cycle. Is this starting to sound familiar? Professional sports ring a bell, notably the uncapped world of baseball. One significant difference, colleges are supposedly not for profit organizations, and the goal of college athletics is to promote competition and academics, not improve the bottom line, yet the exact opposite is taking place.

I’m not naïve enough to think universities or athletic departments view themselves as not for profit, but if the NCAA and the conferences truly have a mission to serve student athletes they will create a more equitable distribution of finances. They mandate that athletes cannot benefit from money the school earns, similarly the school should only benefit to a certain extent from the athletes. The NCAA should centrally pool a portion of television contracts, sponsorships, bowl payouts, and other non-ticket revenue sources and reallocate to help fund the Hofstra’s of the world. Maybe small schools don’t receive the full cost of operations as a “stimulus package” and perhaps we have reached a time when students have to pay an annual fee to play, similar to youth athletics, rather than receive free tuition.

Big schools and big conferences would clearly never agree to this because they correctly argue they generate the money. However, if the NCAA truly supports its mission it will start to force its hand. Sponsorships and donations should go toward NCAA sports or NCAA football, not to Ohio State, the Big East, or the Orange Bowl winner. The NCAA should also seek funding from its professional counterparts, the NFL, NBA, and various Olympic governing bodies. These leagues already support youth initiatives, so it’s not a significant leap to seek contributions to keep small programs alive.

If the NCAA deincentivizes big schools by taking away the potential windfall paydays that come from winning, it may implicitly put a cap on coaches salaries and absurd capital expenditures to add more luxury suites every year. In essence, it may help make college sports continue to look like college sports, rather than a younger version of the professionals.

ESPN Should Apply Mid-Major B-Ball Approach to Football

Spurred by increased media coverage, some talent dilution at top programs from players leaving school, and a run of NCAA tournament upsets mid-major hype hit new levels in college basketball the past decade. It led to an increased national platform, more money, improved recruiting, and overall, a more level playing field with the big boys. Mid-majors will never be on equal standing with BCS conferences, but we have reached the point where it’s not unheard of for mid-majors to get 1, 2, or 3 seeds in the tournament, and never mind surprise, its sometimes expected to see them knock of middle tier teams from big conferences.

These leagues fought an uphill battle and come tournament time always faced with defending what amounts to an easier schedule relative to big conference teams. Never one to miss a made-for-TV opportunity during a lull in the annual sports schedule, in stepped ESPN earlier this decade with Bracket Buster weekend. The premise – match up the best mid-majors across the country to help them boost their profile with a strong non-conference game. ESPN clears out the schedule and showcases these games the entire weekend, brands them, posts attention on the website, dedicates the studio and road show to these games, and gives it the 360-degree ESPN white-glove treatment. It guarantees that as a group the mid-majors get an RPI boost to combat a weak conference schedule and a bunch of them get wins.

College football needs this same event now. Mid-majors have followed a similar trajectory the past five years or so, a few teams paving the way into national prominence, not only breaking through to major but winning. Critics continue to point at the weak schedule these teams play and the current BCS system is biased against these teams playing for the national championship and against having multiple non-BCS teams play in major bowls.

ESPN should pick a weekend around this time of year, preceding the conference championship games, and call it BCS Buster. Schedule 3-5 neutral sites (or at least pick the sites in advance of the season) in different regions and create match-ups among the top non-BCS teams. If only TCU or Boise legitimately has a chance, let them play each other to help the winner get a better shot at a top two spot. Besides the wins and losses, it raises the profile of the leagues and adds legitimacy to both teams. If ESPN applies its hype machine – Gameday crew, primetime audience, top story on Sportscenter, commercials and teasers on radio and TV all week, web integration, the whole nine yards, Boise would not need to hire a PR firm. If it’s better for the two best not to play, the likes of Houston, BYU, and Utah still create a formidable lineup. Outside of the primary matchup, it gives each team a chance to improve its bowl standing, helps recruiting, and starts to create momentum for the following season.

Clearly, the college basketball and football postseasons are two completely different animals, and the nature of scheduling a football differs from a basketball game. That said, the key point here is that football is at the point they need to apply this concept and who better than ESPN to make it happen. I can’t tolerate too many more Indiana-Iowa, Florida-Mississippi State Saturday doubleheaders now that baseball is over.

Picking Up Where Brand Left Off

By all accounts, the late Myles Brand had a successful tenure as NCAA President. He continued the successful businesses in football and basketball, while putting much needed focus on academic reform, instituting programs and policies that have only started to show the impact they may eventually have. Now is not the time for complacency though, the NCAA must focus on continuing Brand’s academic mission and turns its head to a few major issues yet to be successfully addressed.

I saw a quote that Brand shifted the emphasis away from the ‘A’ and to the ‘C’ in NCAA. Academic reform is off to a good start, though it still has a long way to go. The goal is to eliminate these Derrick Rose stories about falsified SAT scores, continue to boost graduation rates, and add some legitimacy to the grades players receive. Academic problems are systemic, stretching well beyond the NCAA can achieve through policy in 3-5 years. They need more partners (high schools, coaches, NBA, etc.), more watchdogs, and the ability to deliver meaningful penalties while the kids are in school.

Academic reform aside, I think the NCAA actually needs to put more focus on the ‘A’ than they have. Athletics mean more than basketball and football, and more than Division 1. SBJ reported last week that the University of Maryland, a prominent D-1 school in a BCS conference, may cut some sports to save money and prevent a budget overrun. Likewise, MIT, a D-3 school known for academic rigor, was forced to cut sports earlier this year, along with countless other programs. When I attended Syracuse, I was amazed we had no baseball team, no hockey team, and saw the wrestling team cut while I was in school. Yet, down the road they built a multi-million dollar practice facility for the basketball team.

The NCAA’s own public service commercials during games tout all the college athletes who will go pro in something other than sports. At the same time the current system is minimizing how many of those students can become athletes. The business side of the NCAA needs reform. Football and basketball budgets are outrageous, starting with coach’s salaries and the luxuries some teams unnecessarily provide their players.

NCAA sports is more ripe for revenue sharing than professional sports. These are supposedly non-profit enterprises. I’m not sure if the right answer is sharing by conference, or a centrally managed NCAA revenue pool for each division (D1, D2, D3, etc.), but the NCAA should put a more comprehensive program together to bolster ‘non-revenue’ sports programs. Yes, football and basketball earn money so they should get the money, but my argument is this is not supposed to be a for-profit enterprise. College athletics is actually supposed to be about equal opportunity, unlike the pros. Before another school shells out $4mm a year for the next Nick Saban, that school best have a team in every sport, and every school in that conference have a team at some level in every sport – or cap the salary. Maybe the NCAA needs to mandate a salary cap on coaches.

Myles Brand left an indelible mark on academics that I hope the next President picks up and takes to the next level, but the NCAA has more fish to fry – financial reform is the next mission.

Create the College Football MLB Stadium Tour

The NHL crafted a regular season event with the Winter Classic, MLB and the NBA have All-Star games, the NFL and MLB have taken the show on the road to play overseas, college football has an opportunity to ratchet things up in the regular season that has started to take form.

Grant it college football has fewer issues selling regular season tickets than do teams in most other sports due to the much shorter season (less supply), general football interest, and passion for school spirit. However, new revenue opportunities always exist. I propose the NCAA consider an MLB Stadium tour. Two possibilities – select a weekend and host a game in each region at a major MLB park, or make it a season-long entrenchment with one game played each weekend in an MLB Park around the country. It could be one game per conference, or one game per region between two non-conference rivals, or geographic rivals.

Notre Dame signing to play at Yankee Stadium is the start. Fenway Park for a BC rivalry game, Dodger Stadium for USC or UCLA, the new outdoor Minnesota Stadium for one of those funny trophies Minnesota plays for against Michigan or Wisconsin. Yes, less capacity could mean less ticket revenue, but if prices accordingly it could even out. The conferences (as an alliance, similar to the BCS) could sell the rights to the Stadium Tour independent of other TV contracts to bolster media revenue, they could sell a sponsorship for the event and come up with a number of creative, integrative activations in each market. For the NCAA and the schools at large, it’s a brand extension opportunity into the heart of the biggest media markets, some of which are dominated by professional teams and lack a strong college presence. Despite its wild popularity and success, without a strong hold in all of the Top 10 media markets, the NCAA still has room to grow. Besides sponsorship and TV money, this initiative could boost merchandise sales for schools, elevate key TV ratings during bowl season, which have stumbled slightly in recent years (possibly due to the BCS), and in general make the sport more valuable.

Something consider at least consider.

Pac-10, ACC Logical Media Partners

Here’s the lay of the land for college conference media deals: the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-10 will all vie for new contracts over the next two years, the two models are partnership [with established media networks for substantial rights fee] or ownership [of your own network].

The partnership model yields lower risk, however few options exist – mainly ESPN, Fox Sports, and CBS – and each competitor has already allocated significant chunks of programming time and fees to the SEC, Big 10 and Big East. This leaves the three remaining BCS conferences to fight over a limited supply of money and distribution. Conversely, launching a cable network is a difficult proposition in this market. Each conference has seen the Big 10 battle for distribution, while the NFL Network continues to lose its fight with providers, among other networks in protracted carriage disputes.

Larry Scott, newly crowned Pac-10 Commissioner, publicly acknowledges that he must market his conference to a wider audience, while ACC Commissioner John Swofford understands how the recent SEC deal changed the economic balance of power in college sports. Signing a rights deal with ESPN, likely for less than the SEC will not do justice to either conference’s bigger mission. The Pac-10 and ACC would play second fiddle to the SEC in college, and get buried under the NFL, golf and tennis majors, MLB coverage, and the NBA. ESPN and ESPN2 have limited shelf space, most of which is occupied. Additionally, these conferences need top billing to increase exposure and drive other revenue streams.

Given the difficulty to launch cable networks, a partnership between the conferences increases their leverage, disperses some of the risk, and increases the upside potential. Each conference brings an iconic team in both major sports – USC is the gold standard in football, as UNC and Duke are in basketball, while Florida State and Virginia Tech hold clout in football, as UCLA and Arizona do out West. They play in complementary timezones, opening the door for cyclical live programming and bi-coastal doubleheaders.

While gaining distribution is difficult, this combination is arguably a better sell than the Big 10. The aggregate covers no less than 12 of the top 30 TV markets to the Big 10’s 7, which is a generous count. Further, it’s presence in more overall markets would the network to charge a premium fee to more “in-market” consumers, thus increasing revenue. It follows that offering programming from two regions, with numerous displaced, yet passionate fans, creates a better selling point to cable providers not in school markets.

New business development opportunities can stem from the relationship. In place of the ESPN contrived basketball conference showdowns, a compelling pre-season ACC-Pac-10 series would draw interest, while the network could investigate bidding on college bowl games involving the two conferences, both creating a more compelling programming slate.

Another key is content ownership. Both conferences have the opportunity to learn from the SEC’s Digital Network initiative, and roll out an enhanced revenue generating machine in a few years. Doubling the content library opens new, creative bundling opportunities to sell to the sponsorship market and to license out. Without diving into financial projects at this stage, with the right management in place, its feasible to make the sum value of their content libraries greater than the individual parts.

And they count the greatest golfer and greatest basketball player ever among their combined alumni – hmm, shoulder programming?

A-B College Beer Cans – Great Idea, Poor Execution

A-B’s campaign to brand beer cans with local college colors was a simple, yet brilliant product marketing idea. They have successfully rebranded bottles and cans in the past and fans have exhibited a definitive affinity to purchase school branded products. Sometimes, the best ideas simply reinvent the wheel. However, A-B fell asleep at the wheel when trying to roll this out, and not only blew the opportunity but also opened the door for another brand to capitalize.

Underage drinking is a major problem for universities, and a well-known, public battle at that. A-B should have been sensitive to the issue and included the NCAA or a consortium of schools to select the appropriate distribution channels. In hindsight, its easy to say this, but pick up the news, do some research, schools around the country are running campaigns against underage drinking and threatening not to sell alcohol in stadiums. A-B needed to make this a partnership. Second, college licensing programs have emerged as major revenue streams for university athletic programs. While legally A-B may not have infringed with the use of the colors, it walks the line, and undoubtedly received attention from the licensing groups. Another area A-B should have addressed before going to market, where a partnership would have prevented an end to the initiative.

Before everyone toots the horns of universities for pressuring A-B into submission and winning a fight against underage drinking, visit some of these schools and see how little some of them do to control drinking and advocating of drinking that goes on right on campus. Fraternities make no secret of hazing, bars literally steps off campus offer specials intended for heavy drinking. Instead of fighting a regulated beer company trying to sell product, schools should focus on what happens on their own campus. In the end, the same distribution points that were selling the branded beer cans will sell the unbranded beer cans, and for 18-21 year olds, it makes no difference.

With that said, this idea has legs – if it didn’t universities would have left it alone and not worried. A-B should now work with universities and develop a plan to sell it in bars, away from campuses, in the surrounding areas near each school to help lift A-B sales in bars relative to the competition. Further, if it works for beer cans, why not use it for soda, iced tea, or water. Those beverage companies, not facing the regulatory issues should look at this as an opportunity to gain market share in the highly competitive beverage category. It could be companies with pouring rights on campus executing a brand extension into surrounding areas, or a guerilla campaign by the competition to own areas right off the campus.

Not everything needs to be groundbreaking and innovative to succeed.