The New England Sports Network (NESN) was a fledgling premium cable channel headquartered in the cramped confines of Boston's Fenway Park when Sean McGrail took an affiliate sales job there in 1985.
“Cable was still fairly young,” says McGrail, 49, of the network's early years as a premium, subscription-based service. “People were trying to figure out what programming had appeal, and regional sports networks (RSNs) were new to the marketplace. There was a lot of skepticism.”
But McGrail, like NESN, has since come to enjoy proven appeal. After moving through the network in a number of sales positions and serving as VP of marketing during the 1990s, McGrail took over as president in 2000. During his tenure, NESN has moved to basic cable and become a touchstone of the New England sports landscape, with service to more than 4.2 million homes.
With the blessing of a media-savvy group of new owners who bought the Red Sox in 2001 (the team owns a majority stake in NESN), McGrail spearheaded initiatives that have made the network a programming and technology leader among RSNs. “I've worked with very successful executives in both sports and entertainment, from Barry Diller to Michael Eisner,” says Red Sox co-owner and chairman Tom Werner, himself a successful TV producer who co-founded Carsey-Werner Productions. “Sean's an outstanding executive. He understands all the constituencies.”
McGrail's rise through NESN has paralleled the network's own success story. The sales rep who started out cold-calling cable distributors to sell them on NESN saw the landscape blossom in the mid-1990s, with RSNs sprouting up all over the country. McGrail led the effort to get NESN on basic cable and re-tooled the brand, expanding the length and production value of its signature shows. He is now at the helm of an industry leader. “It became an acceptable form of programming,” McGrail says. Did it ever.
NESN has a loyal audience, particularly during the dog days of summer when the network's Emmy-winning Red Sox telecasts have consistently earned higher primetime ratings than the broadcast networks in the Boston market.
On the technology front, NESN was one of the first RSNs to simulcast all of its programming in HD. In 2006, the network moved into its 55,000-square-foot HD headquarters in Watertown, Mass., across the Charles River from Fenway. The facility has helped McGrail develop NESN's original programming division, Original NESN Entertainment (ONE), which produces sports-themed reality dating shows, comedy specials and team-based series meant to draw the core audience that tunes in for Red Sox and Boston Bruins games.
“NESN is one of the few independent vertically integrated networks in the country,” McGrail says. “It forces us into functioning like any national network, continually producing original content.”
McGrail calls the current economic situation “the most difficult advertising climate I think anyone in our business has ever seen,” with total revenue in the Boston market down 30% in the fourth quarter. Still, he believes NESN is in a fortuitous position to weather the storm. “We are the last home of appointment television. We are virtually DVR-proof,” he says of live sports programming.
It doesn't hurt that audience interest in NESN's flagship team has hit a fever pitch. Generations of Sox fans who suffered through an 86-year championship drought have shown an obsessive interest in the team, which has won two World Series trophies in the last five seasons.
In trying to match fans' insatiable desire for information and programming around the team, McGrail has built out NESN's pre- and post-game Sox coverage. The network boasts two Hall of Famers—Dennis Eckersley and recently elected Jim Rice—as in-studio hosts.
Not surprisingly, both of McGrail's young sons are die-hard Sox fans. But it's not all baseball at home: McGrail is also an avid skier and scuba diver, and works with numerous Boston-area charities.
McGrail speaks with confidence about NESN's future, and when it comes to his career, he sounds like a local Bostonian who knows he's got it good: “I've been here for 24 years, and I enjoy this thoroughly. Every day brings something new.”