NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As ESPN discovered with its ill-fated venture into original scripted programming, the 2003 football drama "Playmakers," it's not easy for a sports network to meet all of its fans' entertainment needs and keep its league partners happy.
But MTV Entertainment's Spike has been steadily building its brand by bringing sports-themed entertainment to its targeted male audience for the past five years, after Viacom rebranded the former TNN to exclusively cater to young men in 2003. "It's the E that ESPN doesn't have," Jeff Lucas, Spike's exec VP-ad sales, said, referring to the network's acronym, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
Being less beholden to live sports and the leagues that operate them has also allowed Spike to be more flexible when it comes to integrating advertisers into its shows. "The Ultimate Fighting Championship," the network's highest-rated franchise, has attracted integrated sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch, Harley-Davidson and Burger King. It's also hosted the occasional movie promotion. "Because we don't have league restrictions, who else can have Sylvester Stallone in the middle of the fight talking about the 'Rambo' movie with the guys who grew up idolizing him?" Mr. Lucas said.
New programming lineup
Spike is applying that targeted approach to a new programming lineup it's unveiling to advertisers in its upfront presentations this spring, with a slate of 14 new and returning series, including a new season of hit reality series "Pros vs. Joes" and the recent launch of "The Deadliest Warrior," which became the network's highest-rated debut series among men 18 to 34 last week, bowing to 1.7 million total viewers.
The next phase will kick off May 18 with the premiere of "Fourth & Long," a sports competition series in which aspiring football players compete for a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. But because it's a reality show in the vein of "The Apprentice," sponsors will be integrated into the competition. Reebok will sponsor the players' uniforms and apparel; Miller Lite is featured in field and housing signage and is sponsoring a custom "Moments of Greatness" segment; Team EAS is showcasing products on the field and in the locker room; and Popeye's is hosting a "You Make The Call" voting segment and accompanying sweepstakes. (Miller Lite is the Dallas Cowboys' longtime beer sponsor, and Reebok sponsors apparel for all NFL teams.)
Football will also be the driving force behind Spike's first two ventures into original scripted comedy. "The Players Hut," a "Cheers" meets "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" series set in a sports bar from "Upright Citizens Brigade" co-founders Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, and "Black Mountain State," an NCAA football-themed comedy from "Varsity Blues" and "The Bronx Is Burning" producer and director Brian Robbins, will both premiere during college-football season this fall.
"Sports comedy seemed like a logical next step for the network," said Spike President Kevin Kay. "We're focused on a programming filter that will make us different than any other network out there."
'A very critical role'
It's that diversified approach to men's and sports programming that has helped the network become more top-of-mind with media buyers. "They've always filled a very critical role in the cable marketplace," said Kevin Howard, VP-account director of planning at Initiative. "ESPN's a tremendous competitor, but they focus on sports. What Spike has been able to do is address all the other interests that guys are typically into. UFC was a huge property for them, and 'Pros vs. Joes' took a different angle on sports, but what they've done this year has expanded that and taken it to the next level."
Jordan Breslow, director of broadcast research for WPP's Group M, said, "For the sports enthusiast who doesn't have something to watch that fits his interests, shows like 'Pros vs. Joes' are certainly a good alternative. They're kind of positioned between entertainment and sports, so they can possibly steal dollars from one end or the other."
Spike's next challenge is to steal more share of men's entertainment online, where Spike.com reaches 3.5 million unique viewers, according to ComScore, more than competitive sites such as Break.com. The site is being groomed to be a launching pad for both original content and a water cooler for upcoming Spike network shows. Erik Flannigan, MTV Entertainment's exec VP-digital media, said he knew "The Deadliest Warrior" would find an audience on TV when its first streaming episode on Spike.com spurred a lot of user interaction.
"The No. 1 enemy online is apathy, and we're interested in an audience that's going to come back every day," Mr. Flannigan said. "We're not relying on one-off visits. We've become a little more topical, more about passions that guys have."