Budding ESPNs target local fans

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One is an under-the-radar, loosely structured amalgam of TV stations that broadcast local baseball games. One is a regional cable sports network expanding at a pace reminiscent of the early days of ESPN. The third is a league-affiliated Web giant considerably more progressive in its streaming offerings than most of its online peers.

Collectively, these outlets are eyeballed by millions of spend-happy young men who inhale any and every morsel of information related to the teams they champion. So why is it that many marketers may not be as aware of these operations as they are of other, more tried-and-true sports media?

Perhaps, as Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet maven Mark Cuban suggests, it's because opportunities abound as never before for any company trying to affiliate itself with the world of sports. "I think sports marketers are doing a great job," he says. "Though it has been tough for them to keep up with all the different options and opportunities."

`A NICE LITTLE BUSINESS'

Or maybe it's just a lack of self-promotion. Nevertheless, all three properties-Cox Enterprises' Major Market Network Home Team Baseball, Comcast SportsNet and Major League Baseball Advanced Media-have become go-to options for some major marketers. Asked about the need to be heard in a crowded market, MMN's Jerry Puccio, VP-national broadcast, shrugs, and says, "We're happy. The advertisers are happy. We got ourselves a nice little business."

The marketer appeal for all three seems to be twofold, either as a complement to larger national buys or as a wide-reaching option for advertisers not eager to ante up millions for prime-time or playoff slots.

"You get penetration in local markets and you get loyalty. With [MLB.com], you get the [at-work] audience as well," says Todd Walsh, supervisor-national broadcast at Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York.

MMN's Home Team Baseball packages local TV stations' baseball broadcasts into a buy for national advertisers. In its 2005 pitch to advertisers, MMN says a 30-second spot will reach more than 8.6 million homes. "It's hard to find anything [in sports programming] in the second or third quarter that does the numbers that we do," Mr. Puccio says.

"People who watch their home team may not typically watch a national broadcast," says Mr. Walsh, who's bought Home Team Baseball on behalf of Pfizer and Bank One Corp. "It's a unique audience that you may not get just buying national games."

Local allegiances are a big part of the appeal of Comcast Corp.'s Comcast SportsNet, which launched in Philadelphia in 1997. Three years later, the network, focusing primarily on basketball and hockey, started a mid-Atlantic offshoot to cater to Washington and Baltimore fans. A Chicago arm debuted on Oct. 1, 2004; on Nov. 2, the network expanded westward with Comcast SportsNet West, centered on broadcasts of the NBA's Sacramento Kings. The operations reach more than 13 million households, with mid-Atlantic at 4.5 million, Philadelphia at 3 million, Chicago at 3.4 million and West at 2.2 million.

New york move

Additionally, Comcast will manage a new regional New York sports network set to debut in 2006. It will air 125 regular-season New York Mets games. The new entity won't bear the Comcast SportsNet imprint, as it is set up as a partnership between Time Warner Cable, the Mets and Comcast.

Comcast SportsNet President Jack Williams underplays the rapid growth- "from a marketing perspective, I think the name is getting out there"-but is quick to identify why the relatively young network has connected with viewers and advertisers.

"It's passion-passion about the teams," he says, noting local network affiliates rarely devote more than 2 minutes to sports on their news broadcasts. Comcast SportsNet, on the other hand, offers contests complete with pre- and post-game coverage. Advertisers include Geico Insurance, Southwest Airlines and Toyota Motor Sales USA.

SEEKING THE UNCONVENTIONAL

While the usual suspects have lined up to advertise (wireless, automotive, soft drinks, alcohol), Mr. Williams seems eager to look toward unconventional categories for further growth. "Jewelry stores and dealers should be able to do a lot of things with us. So many of those products are bought by men," he notes. "We want our advertisers to feel like the experience with us is something they can't achieve elsewhere."

MLB Advanced Media hopes to offer a similar experience, but has a slightly different carrot to dangle: 2,430 baseball games per season via streaming video, believed to be the largest such offering on the Internet. Instead of hardcore local fans who rarely flip around during broadcasts, a large population of Web watchers (who pay $14.95 per month for live video) are happy to intently watch 30 minutes here or there of a game, or view condensed games in 20 minutes.

"People enjoy it in segments," says Bob Bowman, president-chief executive of MLB Advanced Media. In 2004, it averaged around 20 million video accesses per month.

As opposed to most other sports and general media options, however, MLB.com can reach its audience when they're at work: 70% of the site's traffic comes between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (ET). It's a benefit not lost on Mr. Cuban, who says, "Office workers are chained to their desks, and their computers are their sanity outlet. That's an opportunity."

LITTLE BALL

Fragmentation is spreading in sports media. While not the size of ESPN, these outlets have their advantages:

* Major Market Network Home Team Baseball-gives national advertisers access to teams' loyal local fans.

* Comcast SportsNet-regional cable operations with in-depth local coverage.

* MLB Advanced Media-more than 2,400 baseball games via streaming video.