The playing field is beginning to crowd with sure-fire ratings generators for advertisers hunting for men aged 18-29 and cable operators seeking to build a brand name.
Two rival sports news networks have been launched in the last year-ESPNews, the latest brand extension from ESPN, and CNNSI, the first product of the Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting Systems merger-while Prime Sports regional networks morphed into Fox Sports Net. Coming soon is American Sports Classics, a rival to Classic Sports Network.
Months after their launches, most participants claim there's room for everyone. But the problem is they all want more turf. The jostling of elbows has already produced bruises-and lawsuits. It is likely the road to growth will be rocky, considering the fierce competition for channel space, ad dollars and programming.
Yet sports cable networks rebut cynics who say their prospects are limited because the field is already saturated with assertions that their services are all different from each other. But that's some pretty thinly sliced bologna.
Classic Sports Network is about nostalgia, focusing on memorable games and events; the soon-to-be-launched American Sports Classics is also all about nostalgia, but focuses on personalities.
For many, the difference between a national net like ESPN and Fox Sports' regional confederacy or any regional sports nets is a good game. But ESPN and Fox Sports compete against each other with news programs that are national in scope.
Another competitor is NewSport, with 10 million subscribers, as well as aforementioned highlight-heavy ESPNews and feature-oriented CNNSI.
Jim Walton, a CNN senior VP in charge of CNNSI, says of his product compared with ESPNews: "I see us as different, but I don't know if consumers perceive us differently."
He adds that PrimeStar, which will start carrying CNNSI on April 20, has placed the news/magazine sports network in two different areas on its service: news and sports.
A popular argument against the sports segment's oversaturation is the supposedly bottomless appetite for sports entertainment and information. There is no question American males gorge themselves on sports, but it is difficult to say how much room is left on their plates. No ratings data are available for CNNSI and ESPNews, but with cable subscribers of 1 million and 1.5 million respectively, those numbers are minuscule.
"We don't have a quantitative measurement," says Larry Goodman, president of sales and marketing for Turner News Networks. But "we know that since we began simulcasting CNNSI on CNN during the `CNN Sports Tonight' slot, our ratings with the 18-49 demo have improved pretty significantly. I think that's indicative that we're in pretty good shape."
But the jury's still out on whether there is enough news to justify three distinct services, in addition to the extensive coverage provided by ESPN, Fox Sports Net and CNN.
Round-the-clock channels like CNNSI and ESPNews haven't had to deal with a summer evening when a majority of Major League Baseball teams have the night off.
"We'll hope somebody gets arrested that day," jokes Vince Doria, assistant managing editor at ESPN.
Barring that circumstance, he adds that time can easily be filled with features, analysis and sports-oriented information traditionally uncovered, such as human-interest stories.
So far, sports cable networks are saying they like their ad sales prospects, arguing the the male demographic has few places to turn in the current market.
"There's such a shortage of male viewers in broadcast network prime time that any branded network specializing in the 25-54 demo is always going to be valuable," says Mr. Goodman.
However, "What's ultimately going to happen," says Bill Croasdale, president of the national broadcast division at Western Media International, Los Angeles, "is that spin-off networks designed to compete with existing networks will start cannibalizing their own ratings."
Ratings erosion will continue further with the inevitable arrival of more cable nets not devoted to sports but pursuing the same male demos, says Mr. Croasdale. He cites the growth of Court TV as an example of demand for something more than just games.
Both ESPNews and CNNSI have been selling packages that include ad units on their other networks. Mr. Goodman estimates about 80% of the deals cut for CNNSI include time on CNN and Headline News. The network is far from sold out, and it will be quite a while before it is.
"I don't think that's a reasonable goal for any network prior to hitting 30 million-35 million homes," he says.
In the meantime, Turner is looking for ways to provide added value. Program sponsorship being discussed among Turner's sales and programming executives. However, while Turner and Sports Illustrated ads sales teams share account information, inclusion of SI ad pages in CNNSI ad packages isn't on the radar yet.
ESPNews was launched Nov. 1 with General Motors Corp., Holiday Inn Worldwide, McDonald's Corp., Pennzoil and Procter & Gamble Co. as charter advertisers. By March, BMW, Coca-Cola Co., Miller Brewing, Nike, Pepsi-Cola Co., State Farm Insurance Co. and Timex Corp. joined the mix.
"Every dollar you get is a fight," says George Bodenheimer, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing.
ESPNews, however, doesn't offer ratings guarantees since "most sponsors understand that we're a new launch in a growth mode."
Entering the fray this summer will be American Sports Classics. The parent, Rainbow Programming Holdings, is no rookie and knows it will to make it enticing to woo advertisers. The network will kick off in June with a sponsorship model similar to that of sister Rainbow property Bravo.
"What we prefer to do is start with some charter advertisers who could own entire programs or even blocks of time on the network," says Michael Bair, Rainbow's exec VP-sports, who added that Rainbow's agency, Wolfe/Doyle, San Francisco, has held preliminary talks with advertisers about sponsoring programs on the network's drawing board.
American Sports Classics' ad plan should further gall Classic Sports Network, which has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against Rainbow parent Cablevision Systems Corp. for allegedly trying to push CSN into selling them an equity stake and granting exclusive carriage rights.
Two-year-old CSN has had success with its own sponsorship model. Last month, GM's Chevrolet and Saturn sponsored "Classic Madness," a programming block coinciding with the NCAA college basketball tournament. CSN's other sponsors include AT&T Corp., Coca-Cola, Converse, Miller, War-ner Bros. and Web TV.
SPAT UNDERSCORES COMPETITION
The spat between CSN and Cablevision underscores the competition in the sports cable business and a fear among programmers about the totalitarianism of cable operators. CSN's complaint against Cablevision extends to the cable operator's announced intention to buy from ITT Corp. the half of Madison Square Garden that it doesn't own.
If successful, CSN contends, Cablevision would have a monopoly on the top sports properties in the biggest market in the U.S. Add that to control of cable systems serving 60 million subscribers, and the company would be able to limit channel capacity to competingsports services.
Reach is the name of the survival game for any cable network. Fox Sports Net has been playing it aggressively-and successfully. This joint venture of News Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc. is comprised of nine networks owned by the alliance and seven affiliate networks, giving it access to 44 million cable subscribers, according to Fox estimates.
FOX IN BATTLE
It's a game Fox Sports Net also hates to lose: In October, when Fox was unsuccessful in swallowing the regional network Home Team Sports in Baltimore/Washington, Fox tried to buy the TV rights to Washington Bullets basketball, Washington Capitals hockey and Baltimore Orioles baseball.
When the teams refused an offer it claims exceeded that from HTS, Fox Sports Net sued, alleging the teams were negotiating unfairly.
In an out-of-court settlement, HTS retained its rights to the teams but became a Fox Sports Net affiliate.
Fox also played hardball in Los Angeles, where it owns cable rights to pro baseball, basketball and hockey teams.
In late January, Fox angered cable operators by forcing them into buying its pricy Fox Sports West companion, FSW2, by programming the spinoff with Los Angeles Dodgers baseball, Anaheim Ducks hockey and Los Angeles Clippers basketball. Not wanting its franchise moved to a channel with limited distribution, Mighty Ducks parent Walt Disney Co. filed an injunction against Fox. That has since been thrown out, but further litigation is pending.
Sports nets are also trying to broaden their reach by getting carriage from direct satellite services. FSW2, DirecTV and retailers in Southern California recently concluded a promotion in which consumers could purchase a $300 DBS system for $50. CNNSI joins PrimeStar this month, expanding its reach to 3 million-to-4 million homes.
MUSCLE MAKES DIFFERENCE
Likely survivors may be the ones with the most marketing muscle. CNNSI has a weekly promotion vehicle in the form of Sports Illustrated. ESPN and Fox aggressively advertise their services and programming with on-air and off-network promos. American Sports Classics plans its own Wolfe/Doyle ad campaign.
Rainbow will use its regional sports nets, which reach over 25 million homes, to preview American Sports Classics for several months before launching it as a stand-alone.
Services can also exploit their sibling networks. Rainbow's American Movie Classics will promote American Sports Classics. ESPN and ESPN2 carry simulcasts of ESPNews in various dayparts.
Now, Mr. Bodenheimer is trying to enlist ESPNews advertisers to participate in promotions designed to heighten awareness for the service. In the past, ESPN has been successful with such tactics: This month, for example, Haggar and Holiday Inn teamed with ESPN for a marketing program designed to drive viewers to ESPN's first Major League Baseball broadcasts.
Ultimately, cable network executives believe the winners will be the ones with the most compelling brand names. For instance, with the entry of ESPN and SI into the 24-hour sports news biz, Rainbow's NewSport last September invited cable operators to link their name to NewSport's-"TCI's NewSport," for example-and encourage them to develop local sports fare.
STRATEGY ON HOLD
The implementation of that strategy is on hold, said Mr. Bair, as Rainbow throws all of its resources against American Sports Classics. In fact, Mr. Bair says Rainbow is "re-evaluating" NewSport, citing oversaturation in the sports news niche.
Still, brand names on their own aren't enough. Sports Illustrated can boast of a loyal following for its magazine, says Mr. Walton, but making them CNNSI loyalists will take what built SI in the first place: superior product.
"It's not a gimme. Loyalty has to be earned, and that means we have to have compelling programming. And good programming will always find a home," he says.