Local TV

Stations Game For Sports Growth

While some local TV outlets are getting rid of sports coverage, more and more are finding ways to out-hustle—and out-local—ESPN and the scourge of real-time scores on smartphones 5/30/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

It was game over for WTHI Terre Haute when
the station pulled the plug on sports several years ago.
But a funny thing happened when the CBS affiliate
brought it back almost three years later. The station saw its
image rise in the community, says Todd Weber, vice president
and general manager. Ratings and revenue grew too: Weber says overall audience share has climbed
about 5% since sports, relaunched with an
intensely hyperlocal focus, came back following
WTHI’s acquisition by LIN in 2005.
Revenue has grown 6% since then, according
to BIA/Kelsey.

While stories of stations scrapping sports
coverage altogether—citing increased competition
and decreased relevance, thanks to the ubiquity of cable sports news and realtime
results on digital devices—have become
common, more compelling are the reports of
stations elevating their local presence with
more savvy, and more local, sports reporting.
“We’d lost sales and clients because of
[dropping sports], but more than anything,
we’d lost our image and our branding,” says
Weber. “Sports is part of the package of local
coverage in the community.”

It’s a challenging time, to say the least, for
sports guys toiling in local TV. Cable colossuses
like ESPN and Comcast’s Regional
SportsNets are on major stories like the Orlando
Magic’s Dwight Howard covering an
opposing center. Besides supplying more
highlights than any fan can possibly ingest,
ESPN is in the midst of a major local initiative
too. That fans know not only the final
score, but who homered, who tossed a shutout
and who went 4 for 5 in virtual real time
from their handhelds only compounds the
problem for stations that have supplied viewers
with scores and highlights for decades.

While it may not be the optimal time to
break into local sports, the abundant—and
some say unparalleled—interest in pro, college
and high school sports (including fantasy
sports participation), coupled with the
mounting programming hours stations are
looking to fill on linear and multicast channels,
on the Web and on mobile, speaks to
local sports’ considerable vitality. Stations
that offer standout hyperlocal coverage and
fresh and compelling local angles, that consistently
beat ESPN to the hot stories in their
markets and play to their multiplatform potential
show that sports is as essential to the
local news Holy Trinity as it’s ever been.

“Sports are such a part of people’s lifestyles,
so it’s incumbent on stations to make
it interesting—find the story behind the story,
the strategy, what the player is like, what
made the game turn,” says Thomas Dolan,
president of television management recruitment firm Dolan Media Management. “It’s
a winning strategy, because the rest of the
stuff is dead.”

Too Many Players,
Not Enough Games

“Dead” isn’t far off the mark when describing
some markets for sports talent. In West Palm
Beach, Hearst TV’s WPBF does not feature
regular sports segments (though major sports
stories are in the general news mix, as is often
the case with stations that scrap sports segments).
Two years ago, market leader WPTV
dismissed its sports anchors and outsourced
sports to ESPN Radio. This past January, the
Scripps station did a deal to produce sports
for Raycom’s WFLX—meaning radio produces
sports for two TV stations in West Palm. Sports
radio also has an increased role at the CBSowned
TV stations nationwide.

Last June, Comcast’s SportsNet Bay Area
commenced producing sports for NBC Local
Media’s KNTV; the model is being looked at
in other markets where Comcast and NBC
own separate sports outfits, including Philadelphia
and Chicago. “We want to start in
one place and get whatever learnings we
can out of that,” says Princell Hair, Comcast
Sports Group’s senior VP of news operations.
“We’ll evaluate and look at other opportunities
down the road.”

While sports has had a reduced presence
in the female-friendly morning and 5 p.m.
news for years, some stations have bumped
regular sports segments in 6 p.m. and late
newscasts, too. “We decided we could better
serve our viewers by making [sports]
big and bold when appropriate,” says Mary
Lynn Roper, president and general manager
at KOAT Albuquerque.
“Other times, we’ll use
the time to be more
relevant to viewers. It’s
worked well.”

Sandra Connell, president
at placement firm
Talent Dynamics, says
TV sports talent is finding
work at Comcast,
MLB, Bright House and
of course ESPN, among
other cable nets. She
cites the Fox O&Os for
hiring sports anchors,
too. But much of local
broadcast is a different
story. “Their place and
the amount of time they
get in a show is just not
a given,” she says via
email. “They might have
to justify their place and
a solid local story will
usually help.”

Yet several industry
watchers insist it’s hardly
doom and gloom for
the jocks. Bob Papper,
Hofstra University professor
of journalism and
overseer of the annual
Radio Television Digital News Association
(RTDNA)-Hofstra local news studies, says
stations scrapping sports in recent years got
outsized coverage in the press. What was
less reported: Similar to WTHI, the stations
frequently ended up bringing sports back
within a few years.

Research from Frank N. Magid Associates
says a third of news viewers age 25-54 are
passionate about sports, a third can take it or
leave it, and the other third dislikes the category.
Sports will never draw viewers the way
weather does, but Papper believes it remains
a critical piece of the newscast puzzle—and
typically offers the most compelling video.
“I tell news directors they’re crazy to drop
sports,” he says. “It’s a small audience, but
it’s also a rabid audience—probably more so
than any other [subject] area.”

Of course, stations offering the same old
scores and highlights will fade faster than
the 2011 Twins. Papper speaks of stations
putting a “way bigger emphasis on what you
don’t see on ESPN”—including high school
games and participatory sports, such as local
running races. LIN’s KBVO Austin, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, will produce a second season
of weekly high school football games later
this year, in HD, out of its new production
trailer. It doesn’t stop at the high school level—
some in local TV speak of covering youth
league competitions as well.

At Fox-owned WNYW New York, Duke
Castiglione’s segments are, as the cliché says,
not his father’s sports reports. Castiglione, 37,
grew up watching dad Joe do the sports on
WKYC Cleveland. It was all about highlights
back then, but Castiglione says a “different
twist” is now required to draw viewers in.
That means investigative pieces on performance
enhancing drugs in baseball, including
hidden cameras, and concussions in football.
It means covering fringe sports, such as
mixed martial arts, that may not get major
play on the networks. It means digging deeper
to find the human interest. “Amidst all the
competition today,” Castiglione says, “people
just want to see and hear a good story.”

More Platforms,
More Opportunities

Papper says stations set a record for local
news in 2010, the average of five hours per
day being 24 minutes more than 2009’s record
number. Thanks to expanded morning
newscasts, multicast channels, standalone
Websites and social media, sports guys are often
getting more room to deliver content than
they did a few years ago. Castiglione, for one,
gets four or five segments, at 3-4 minutes per,
in WNYW’s mammoth Good Day New York.
He has a Sunday Sports Extra show as well,
and conducts sit-down interviews with public figures from the sports world that are of interest
to the general audience, such as former
Yankees skipper Joe Torre.

KWTX Waco rebranded its sports department
“254 Sports” to give it its own online
home. “We thought sports could be more
than something we did at the end of the
newscast,” says Bob Bunch, VP and general
manager. “We wanted to give sports its own
identity and promote it as such.”

Dick Haynes, senior VP of research at
Magid, says stations’ local brands, in some
cases established over the past half-century,
put them in a superior position to capitalize
on online and mobile media. Groups such as
Hearst TV and Gannett, to name two, own
local high school sports online franchises.
Haynes mentions station-issued scores, updates
and highlights sent to smartphones. “If
stations can marry up new technologies and
their expertise and their brand, they can own
sports in the marketplace,” he says. “But you
don’t do it by having the best two-minute
sports report in the newscast. You have to go
beyond that.”

Hearst TV is using its multicast channels
not just for pre- and post-game and coach’s
shows, but for live sports too. Its KITV Honolulu,
for one, is airing a dozen San Francisco
Giants games on channel 4.2 this season.
“Live sports still resonates with the viewer—
and the advertiser,” says Frank Biancuzzo, senior
VP at Hearst TV. “I think that’s where the
real opportunity for stations is today.”

As Biancuzzo notes, sports draws a healthy
share of advertisers too, including the vital
auto category, and offers sponsorship opportunities
the rest of the news cannot. “There’s
an emotional attachment to sports,” says
WTHI’s Weber. “That helps you monetize it,
both on-air and online. You have certain advertisers
that buy into sports for that reason.”

The Worldwide Leader in…
Local Sports?

Everyone acknowledges the enormous
shadow ESPN casts over sports media, and the
Worldwide Leader is sharpening its local strategy
as well. “ESPN Local,” with sites representing
New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los
Angeles, recently turned two, and the language
coming out of ESPN headquarters—the sites are
“built on the foundation laid by ESPN’s owned
and operated stations,” said ESPN in a statement—
suggests its prime target is TV stations.

Traffic for the sites is impressive.
ESPNNewYork.com, for one, averages 4.6
million unique visitors and 25.4 million total
minutes per month. ESPN Local plans to
expand to new markets, perhaps in 2012.
Mighty as the brand may be, some in local TV
say there’s no way an ESPN reporter should
scoop their talent on a local story. “We’re
there at practice day in and day out, covering
the team,” says Comcast’s Hair. “That gives
you access that a national network can’t have.
There’s no reason why a national reporter
should break a story in one of our markets
before one of our local reporters. And we
hold them to that standard.”

For all the talk about shaking up the local
news formula, considerable evidence remains
that viewers still want breaking news, weather
and, yes, sports in their newscasts—and on
the other platforms stations are feeding 24/7.
WTHI Terre Haute, which features everything
from Indiana University athletics to the state’s
beloved high school basketball competition
in its revamped sports mix, learned this lesson
the hard way.

“Here, the culture is family. You grew up
with your kids watching local sports on TV,”
says WTHI’s Weber. “Sports is critical to your
local image and critical to your impact in the
community.”

E-mail comments to
mmalone@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

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