Sports Marketing

Comcast's OLN Gears Up to Take on ESPN

After Signing NHL, Network Bids for MLB and NFL Programming Packages

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NEW YORK ( -- In the sports world it's known as faking left and going right. A month after telling investors it had no plans to take on cable-sports giant ESPN, Comcast seems to be fast-tracking its Outdoor Life Network to do exactly that.

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After spending -- some would say overspending -- $135 million over two years for the rights to National Hockey League telecasts last month, OLN is now a serious contender for Major League Baseball and National Football League packages.

May bid for MLB, NFL packages
Executives close to the respective negotiations said OLN is bidding for the Wednesday-Sunday package of baseball games that ESPN now has and that expires after this year. And, even more surprising, OLN is considered the front-runner for the Thursday-Saturday late-season package of NFL games in 2006.

According to TNS Media Intelligence, in 2004 OLN notched $54.7 million in ad revenue -- that's a far cry from ESPN's $1.29 billion, or even ESPN2's $239 million. But the network is optimistic the NHL deal will expand its roster of advertisers and, more importantly, bring additional share from its current advertisers, including Anheuser-Busch, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

Expanding the scope
"In the same way we're looking to expand the scope of OLN by adding this major live sport, we're looking forward to expanding our relationship with major advertisers," said Dave Cassaro, president of Comcast Network Advertising Sales.

While OLN's ad revenue doesn't match that of ESPN, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports," the network should start to see an increase in the number of new advertisers.

"You go where the product is," said a marketing executive for a blue-chip company that advertises around all major sports. "If you want to be in the NHL -- and we do -- then you're going to end up advertising on OLN."

"We get most of the categories that are endemic to sports," Mr. Cassaro said. "This is not only about bringing brand-new advertisers, the real opportunity is to expand relationships with current ones."

Not ruling out acquisitions
Gavin Harvey, president of OLN, wouldn't comment on any negotiations the network may be involved in, but didn't rule out other major acquisitions either. "The NHL is a massive franchise for us to absorb and if we get another opportunity for something else great, hopefully we'll be in a position to take advantage of an opportunity like that," he said.

Last week the network was finalizing its advertising plans with the NHL and hoped to begin making the rounds to agencies this week.

300-plus advertisers
OLN has 300-plus advertisers, including many of the NHL's partners -- Dodge and Anheuser-Busch, for example. Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider. It owns two national sports cable networks in OLN and The Golf Channel, and has local networks in major markets such as Chicago, Detroit Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington-Baltimore. OLN is seen in about 63 million households, compared to 90 million for ESPN.

While some see the NHL deal as a marriage between a niche network looking to reposition itself and a league desperate for a national TV contract, there is no questioning what a second deal would mean.

NFL adds legitimacy
"Especially if they get the NFL," said sports-marketing expert Dean Bonham, president of Denver-based Bonham Group. "Look at what the NFL did for ESPN and Fox. It legitimized those networks."

ESPN and Fox signed rights agreements to televise the NFL in 1987 and 1993, respectively, and have had those contracts ever since.

For its part, Comcast has done a good job of playing possum. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told analysts and investors, "We're not in any way trying to take on another network."

But what Comcast won't admit, ESPN readily does.

"It seems clear that OLN is setting itself up as a competitor to ESPN," George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, told The New York Times.

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