Sports Network CEO Makes No Apologies for Product Placement

YES's Tracy Dolgin Says Brands Are the Stars of His Programs

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Who: Tracy Dolgin, president-CEO of the YES Network.
Tracy Dolgin says about the YES Network: 'We unabashedly put the products front and center.'

Why you need to know him: Since taking the reins of the regional sports network that's devoted to baseball's New York Yankees and basketball's New Jersey Nets, Mr. Dolgin has launched several brand-friendly programs, including shows like "Ultimate Road Trip" and the upcoming "Boy's Toys." He's turning to product integration not only as a way to boost revenue but as a way to give marketers a nontraditional way to tie in with the popular sports franchises and target their loyal fans.

Credentials: Before joining the YES Network in 2004, Mr. Dolgin served as managing director and co-head of Houlihan Lokey Howard and Zukin's media, sports and entertainment practice. Before that, he co-founded Media Connect Partners, a boutique investment bank acquired by HLHZ. In 2000, Mr. Dolgin was named president of Fox Sports Net, where he oversaw all areas, including marketing, advertising, on-air promotion, programming, production, operations and advertising sales, as well as strategic relationships with News Corp. sibling Fox Sports and the creation of Fox Sports Radio, Fox Sports Grill and Fox Sports Interactive. He's also served as chief operating officer at Fox/Liberty Cable, developed "NFL on Fox" ad campaigns while exec VP-marketing at Fox Sports, worked as exec VP-marketing at Fox Broadcasting Co., and held the post of senior VP-marketing at HBO Video in New York. And before entering the entertainment industry, he worked at General Foods in product management.

Mr. Dolgin revealed his branded entertainment strategy to Madison & Vine via e-mail.

Since you took the job at YES, you've actively tried to get marketers to make the leap from the traditional advertising they do in ballparks or during games to tying into other forms of programming centered on the Yankees. Was it difficult to persuade marketers to do that? "Whenever you ask someone to step out of his or her comfort level and take a risk, you're going to be met with resistance. It was no different with us. It's always a major undertaking to convince advertisers to try different things. You have to find advertisers willing to join you as you step into uncharted territory. Of course, having the most prized brand in all of sports, the Yankees, in our corner quelled a lot of fears. Advertisers have always flocked to the pinstripes."

Talk about "Ultimate Road Trip." How was that developed with brands in mind? "It all started one late night at home, just me and a bottle of wine. I had just come on board at YES and was thinking of new promotional platforms for our clients in this post-TiVo world, because marketers were growing concerned about how to reach their target audiences as the traditional 30-second spot came under attack. We also had to contend with the fact that our Yankees telecasts are usually sold out the entire season. I happen to be a lifelong Yankees fan, and I thought, What would be my ultimate fantasy? To attend every single game of the season, of course! So we selected four passionate Yankees fans throughout the country to attend every home and away game, participate in challenges and accrue points for prizes. We unabashedly put the products front and center. The fans fly on Continental, drive a Chevy Tahoe, wake up to Dunkin Donuts, drink Poland Spring water, capture moments on Fuji film and cameras, and sleep on Tempurpedic mattresses in their Chelsea apartment. [The brands] are the stars of the show; they enable the four fans to actually fulfill their dreams."

What's the latest on "Boys' Toys?" How will that integrate brands? "We're talking to a number of marketers and agencies, and we are looking at an early 2007 premiere. The concept is similar to 'Ultimate Road Trip': unapologetically splashing clients' products throughout the show. Each episode will feature the latest, greatest gadgets and tools for the young, hip, affluent male, an audience that marketers crave. Envision Sharper Image and other high-end gadgets normally found in Details, Maxim, Stuff and FHM magazines -- products that appeal to men who are also sports fans."

What other branded-entertainment projects are you developing? "We have seen early success with our 'content breaks' during Yankees and Nets telecasts. These are 90-second breaks -- oftentimes customized specifically for our air, which take the place of three 30-second spots in between innings during a baseball telecast, for example. Our announcers tease the content break twice in the early innings and discuss it afterwards. Fox News Channel, National Geographic Channel, FX, Paramount and the Weinstein Co. are just a few of our clients. We also aired a specially created eight-minute Suzuki spot within a Nets postgame show one night last season, which is another concept we're looking at."

You've been criticized for pushing integrations to the max. How do you know if you're going too far? When does it become overkill? "We live in a world where we get immediate feedback about our programming. When we walk into our offices each morning, the feedback is clear to see in the form of the overnights. We know the next morning what works and what doesn't. Viewers vote with their eyeballs every night. Product placement involves the subtle, incidental inclusion of a product or service in a show. YES's product immersion is blatant about factoring in clients and is essential to the storyline. We have the 'Ultimate Road Trip' characters washing the Tahoe and professing their love for a Dunkin' Donuts triple latte in the morning. But as I said earlier, 'Ultimate Road Trip' doesn't exist without these products. The same cannot be said about 'American Idol,' 'The Apprentice' and other product- and brand-integration vehicles."

Because YES is so focused on one team, does that allow you to experiment a little more with advertisers when it comes to programming? "Definitely. Because we have the Yankees, advertisers seek us out to experiment. There is nothing more valuable for them than being associated with this great brand. It's a classic example of the halo effect. They want to experiment on YES because of the Yankees. This enables us to create different kinds of programs from the ground up. Bottom line, we'll only launch new series if the content is enjoyable, and if there's advertiser interest. 'Yogi and a Movie,' which we launched last fall with Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, and this season's new Yankees batting-practice show, are two prime examples of this philosophy."

With YES being such a regional channel, how do you measure the success of the integrations for brands? "YES is a regional sports network, with one important distinction: The region is New York, not Kansas City or Pittsburgh. This is the biggest, most important local market in the country -- if not the world -- to advertisers. This is the market on which all advertisers focus. Most regional sports networks cannot do the things we're doing because advertisers don't have nearly the same regard for these other, smaller markets, and their local teams don't resonate locally or nationally like the Yankees. We've had movie studios tell us that certain movies promoted via our content breaks have enjoyed extremely successful opening weekends in the New York DMA. While there's no way of measuring exactly how much impact the content breaks have had on opening weekends, the YES Network platform played a significant part in that success. Broadcast and cable network television shows promoted within our content breaks have seen their household ratings in New York jump almost 20% week over week, and some shows have even enjoyed season-high ratings."

There is still some confusion as to what branded entertainment actually is. How do you define it? "You know, that term is so confusing, we don't even use it here. I have yet to read a succinct definition of branded entertainment. If I can't explain it clearly, we're not going to apply it here. Instead, we focus on something we can quantify, something that's unique to YES: product immersion."

What are some good examples of branded entertainment you've seen recently? "Since I can't for the life of me explain branded entertainment, I'll give you some good product and brand integration examples: 'American Idol' and Coca-Cola; Fox Sports Net's 'Best Damn Sports Show Period' [Mr. Dolgin and his team brought in Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mike's Hard Lemonade and Home Depot, among others, to the show]; and ESPN's 'College GameDay,' featuring Home Depot."

And bad? "Any show with branded entertainment that's been canceled. Any show whose featured brand I can't recall."

What's on your iPod? "Tons of Dead and Springsteen shows."

What's on your TiVo? "'Entourage,' '24,' 'House.'"

What do you do in your downtime? "Attend Yankees games. Wait, is that considered work or downtime?"

So besides the Yankees, who are your favorite teams? "I coach my son's second-grade baseball team, which is currently undefeated. My son is batting .800 the last time I looked. He must have gotten his hitting eye from his mom's side of the family."