The Biz: TV execs angle for more play in sports

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The relationship between TV and sports used to be a simple. Networks bought the rights fees from the leagues in exchange for exclusivity in televising national games. But as those rights fees soar, TV executives are playing a bigger role in deciding more than just which game to broadcast. More and more, the networks are inserting themselves into league business.

News Corp.'s Fox heavily, and successfully, lobbied Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to change the format of the midseason All-Star Game between the American League and the National League. Mostly just a showcase of the league's best players, the All-Star Game now has more at stake with a two-year experiment: The winning league will have home-field advantage later that year for the World Series.

Walt Disney Co.'s ABC is quietly pushing the National Football League to be more flexible with its TV schedule. Instead of having its match-ups for "Monday Night Football" set in stone before the season even begins-sometimes resulting in dull, late-year games with no bearing on the playoff picture-ABC is pressing to be allowed to select which "MNF" games to televise two to three weeks out. Aside from the obvious scheduling difficulties that might present, Fox and Viacom's CBS, the NFL's other broadcast partners, have already objected to the idea.

seeking participation

At the college level, leagues have sought out TV experts' participation. With the Atlantic Coast Conference threatening to poach three members from the Big East Conference, the Big East hired former Raycom TV Sports president Ray Warren as a consultant. Mr. Warren recently made a presentation to the three Big East members threatening to jump to the ACC, trying to convince them that the TV contract money proposed by a new, 12-member ACC would not be as much as first thought. If the three members decide to jump anyway, Warren is expected to advise the Big East on which new schools and new TV markets to invite to join its league.

"The thing between the property and the networks is that they're more partners now, and both are invested in the success of the league," says Wally Hayward, CEO of Starcom MediaVest's Relay Sports and Event Marketing, Chicago. "At the end of the day, TV networks are paying high rights fees and they need to ensure the success of the property. So the networks certainly have the right to voice their opinion."

Ed Goren agrees. Goren is president of Fox Sports, which is in the third year of a $2.5 billion, six-year contract with Major League Baseball. Last month, during a conference call to talk about Fox's 2003 debut of MLB telecasts, he was asked about Fox's role in changing the format of the All-Star Game.

"I'm not embarrassed or ashamed that we were part of the process," Goren said. "We supported something we believed would be healthy for the game of baseball. At these prices, I think we're entitled to an opinion."

During an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Goren talked further about TV's emerging role in league business.

not much different

"I don't think things are necessarily much different now than they've been for a long time," he says. "For instance, when I worked at CBS and CBS had the Winter Olympics in Albertville [1992] and Lillehammer [1994], they worked with the [International Olympic Committee] on scheduling the events. Those were European-based Olympics with an eye toward American television. I don't think any network has the power go to out and dictate changes in a sport, but when you do see these kinds of changes they come about because the leagues involved feel this is good business for them and for their broadcast partner."

Yet the reality is that rights fees have soared, ratings have declined, and networks have to answer to their advertisers. Last year's All-Star Game earned a 9.5 rating, the lowest in the history of the event. "Monday Night Football" hasn't had a season-ending rating over 20 since 1982, and last year's 11.4 overall rating was the worst in its 33-year history.

But the networks, despite the falling ratings, can still wring value from the relationship.

"Networks use these big sports events as promotional platforms to get viewers over to their regular programming," says Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming services for Aegis Group's Carat North America. "It's almost as if sports is a loss leader. ... But the main reason is to have these huge audiences to get the viewers to the regular schedule. And to do that, you'll see more and more of this participation in league business from the networks."

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