In last week's Sports Business Journal, John Ourand handicapped the likely destination for the NFL's new Thursday night package of games. Up for bid will be the first half season of Thursday Night games as the NFL will extend from a half season to a full season of games before the weekend.
Ourand, who dominates the niche of sports media negotiations, pegged Versus/NBC Sports Network as the favorite with 2-1 odds. Turner came in second with 3-1 odds and way off in the distance were ESPN, Fox, and NFL Network, all of which were double digit odds.
Essentially you have a two horse race and the smart money is on NBC Sports Network. Ourand explains:
"It’s clear that NBC wants the NFL and already has programmed several NFL-themed shows for its NBC Sports Network. My guess is that NBC and the NFL work out a deal that would give the league an ownership stake in NBC Sports Network. For the league, an ownership stake in one of NBC’s cable channels would be an easy way to bolster its media portfolio. For Comcast, it presents a way to get the league’s package without committing $700 million a year up front."
The buzz is that we'll probably know the winner of the package sometime before Halloween. I've been vocal that NBC Sports Network will win out but I think that given equity of the channel is now potentially in play, there is a long shot scenario for NBC to feed two birds with one hand (isn't that better than killing birds with stones....plus it sounds easier to do).
Currently Versus/NBC Sports Network has two issues on the programming side.
- Limited live sports (NHL, second tier college football, MLS, Rodeo, Indy, etc)
- Very sparse offerings in terms of original programming.
Believed by many to be the only possible true competitor to ESPN, the expectations to achieve such status quickly have been unrealistic. It will take a decade and progress will be slow and steady but ultimately I think we'll see the day where NBC, NBC Sports Network, NBCsports.com, and the Comcast regional become closer to Pepsi competing with ESPN's Coke opposed to their current status which is closer to RC Cola.
Adding live sports will not be the tricky part. Submitting winning bids for television packages will be competitive but ultimately if they shell out what they need to, there will be a nice natural flow of additional live sports to the network. College football, college basketball, MLB, and the NBA are all on the short list of possible targets. Almost everything is in play as exhibited by their favorite position with the NFL package.
But original programming is where the struggle will be. It's a symbiotic relationship. Live programming helps lead into original programming, where the bulk of advertising profits is harvested. Original programming helps promote your live programming. ESPN's advantage is that both sides of the fence are stacked and because of this, sports fans, bars, restaurants, seem to naturally gravitate to the channel and stay there rather than flipping around for something better.
NBC Sports Network aims to get to that natural gravitation of an audience and original programming may be the biggest hurdle. Most original shows fail. Not just sports shows, but look at all the crap that debuts and gets cancelled within weeks and months. Frankly, it's a tough industry and one I call a "hits driven" business. Only 10%-20% of shows really ever truly "make it". Just like a move studio or record label, it's your hits that pay the bills and grow the bottom line.
PTI is a hit. SportsCenter is a massive hit. Baseball Tonight, NFL Live, and College Game Day are all hits as well and for everyone of them there are more than a dozen of shows you probably don't even remember fizzling out...
NBC Sports Network has no hits but they're beginning to try. A handful of new shows have just kicked off and are led by folks with built in audiences such as Mike Florio, Darren Rovell, and other digital personalities, as well as shows focusing on in-depth NFL coverage. Initial reaction has been tempered but positive. Hard to tell this early if there is hit potential but thus far they've avoided any bombs. (Who else remembers Fanarchy?)
Now if Comcast is willing to give up equity to the NFL in exchange for 8 NFL games, my outside the box and not-really-in-the-TV-industry mind tells me there is a bigger deal that could be worked out. It would be a hell of a long shot, but why not give an additional stake in the network in exchange for the rights to original programming hits like Hard Knocks, NFL Films Presents, or Inside The NFL.
Knee jerk reaction is that this would burn some bridges with HBO, ESPN, and Showtime. To me though, the juice is worth the squeeze. If you can get a bigger piece of what will become ESPN's biggest competitor, and at an early stage, that's a good deal. If you're Comcast, this is a build vs. buy question. Do you spend millions trying to "build" hit programming when the failure rate is high and the lack of success can often overshadow progress elsewhere? Here are some sure things that immediately put you on the map.
The HBO and Hard Knocks connection is deep but at the same time, Inside The NFL left the network a couple years back and only a small minority of Americans have access to the program given it's not on basic cable. Adding commercials definitely is not attractive, but maybe you could go the 30 for 30 route and have it be limited to 2-3 sponsors. Maybe even do an after show analyzing the team in question and their march to a 53 man roster.
I really don't watch Inside The NFL, but it's an option with an established brand and audience that could be a bit more realistic given Showtime isn't exactly the premier destination for programming (simmer down Weeds, Dexter, and Californication fans).
Best Option For Acquiring Original Programming?
NFL Films Presents is the best option. ESPN absolutely buries the show on ESPN2 late at night and it often doesn't air in the listed time slot as live sports often push back the start of the show. Those who DVR the program often whiff. I'd guess that many reading this post probably don't even know what the show is about. At its core it highlights the human interest stories within football, not just limited to the NFL. Some of the stories are funny while others like this one, are incredibly poignant and touching.
On ESPN, NFL Films Presents is gumball in a gumball machine. On NBC Sports Network, it could be the crown jewel. NBC has a history of embracing well produced human interest stories so this seems like a natural fit.
I think if you're a reader of this blog, you probably subscribe to the notion that ESPN could use a nice kick in the butt via a real competitor in their rear view mirror. Competition makes everyone better. If that's the case, keep your eyes peeled for how the Thursday game package bidding unfolds and maybe cross your fingers that NBC can also bundle in some established shows into a larger deal. This is a long shot that it materializes, but if you want to compete with ESPN, you're going to have to think outside of the box. Why not steal one of their shows in the process?
Regardless, if NBC Sports Network or Turner can get additional programming in addition to the games, a bigger question looms of who will announce these games? Who would you like to see?