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...