Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why we need a "niche" sports channel

I have a lot of opinions on ratings-dependent 24-hour news channels. It's an election year and you'll be able to read any number of blog posts about how one network or another is biased toward the left or right.

This post isn't one of them.

At least there are several 24-hour news channels. In sports, it took the launch of NBC Sports Network (the converted Vs.) in January to provide the latest alternative to ESPN. I say alternative here because it really wouldn't be accurate to say "competitor." ESPN is not a cable network anymore. It is a brand name (it licenses lord knows how many products, a smart business move that probably rakes in millions every fiscal quarter). It's branding was so strong it was enough to eliminate ABC Sports in favor of ESPN on ABC. The Sportscenter theme is probably more recognizable to the population than any Bon Iver song. You cannot compete with ESPN.

But, if you're a sports fan, at least one that doesn't focus on the sports ESPN covers, it can be tough going.

No really. I don't ever watch Sportscenter. That the anchors have become more and more annoying or that they spend endless minutes just talking instead of showing highlights is one reason. But the other, more simply, is that my sports taste no longer aligns with what ESPN thinks they are (or should be).

Thanks to Deadspin, I no longer need to speculate about this. It's new "Bristolmetrics" series breaks it all down for us. They're looking at Sportscenter every week and counting up which sports get the most coverage. In the latest installment, the breakdown was (copying directly from the linked post):

NBA: 148.75 minutes (39.3%) (last week 22.8%)
College basketball: 68.25 (18%) (last week 23%)
NFL: 40.75 (10.8%) (last week 36.8%)
Golf: 19.5 (5.2%) (last week 1.9 %)
NHL: 15.75 (4.2%) (last week 2%)
MLB: 12.75 (3.4%) (last week 0.8%)
College football: 4.75 (1.3%) (last week 0%)
Other sports: 7.25 (1.9%) (last week 0.3%)
SportsCenter staples (things like the "Top 10," "Encore," "What 2 Watch 4," etc.): 60.5 (16%) (last week 12.4%)
This isn't totally surprising. I am a believer in the agenda-setting power of media. It's not that media tells you what to think, it's that they tell you what to think about. And ESPN has a huge interest in having you think about the NBA, college basketball and the NFL. They pay billions of dollars to televise those leagues. And the only way they can try to recoup those investments is via ad dollars.

But it does call into question how much we can call this "news." You can argue that the NBA is in season and therefore deserves a lot of coverage time. But to double the minutes spent in coverage of also-in-season college basketball? And let's not even start on the paltry number of minutes given to the NHL (which is not only in-season but having a statistically more competitive season than the NBA). It's clear that Sportscenter is a promotional vehicle, not a news program.

What's hilarious is, if you've read the recent book chronicling the history of ESPN, pages are devoted to how upset network executives were when they lost rights to broadcast the NHL. Sure, guys.

If you're an NBA fan, ESPN is pretty much everything you want. If you're a hockey fan, well, ESPN knows you're part of the average of 330,000 people watching games on NBC Sports Network. And it completely makes sense if you are ESPN's size to make decisions that way.

I am under no delusion that Americans want to watch more hockey and ESPN is blocking them from doing so. It seems that the audience that wants hockey (people like me) know where to find it (NBC Sports).

To that end, my hope is that NBC doesn't try to compete with ESPN. If you know me, you know I am a season ticket holder to the local Major League Soccer team. NBC Sports will be broadcasting that league starting in two weeks. Inevitably, ratings are going to come in and people will decry how small they are. How soccer (like hockey) is just a niche sport in America.

Maybe or maybe not. Either way, I hope NBC ignores the noise. They have the opportunity to satisfy the fans that ESPN doesn't give as much time to. Ratings will be smaller, as will advertising takes. But that doesn't mean, properly run, it cannot be profitable. We're in an age where a small, focused audience that keeps coming back can have plenty of value.

I just hope NBC execs agree.

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