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Angling for Attention

ESPN rocked the boat in outdoors/lifestyle programming circles in May, when sports TV’s largest player said it would drop all of its long-running outdoors shows, with the exception of Bassmasters bass-fishing events.

World Fishing Network CEO Mark Rubenstein wasn’t surprised.

“Our first reaction was, ‘What took them so long?’ The reality is that consumers want fully dedicated channels,” Rubenstein says of the more than 87 million U.S. hunters, fishermen and outdoors enthusiasts.

His view: An all-encompassing sports network such as ESPN or ESPN2 (where such fare was a Saturday-morning staple) cannot satiate the outdoors audience, which craves ondemand, in-depth programming like instruction and gear reviews.

The passionate community of anglers, hunters and wildlife lovers spends $10.1 billion each year on hunting and fishing equipment, making the outdoor category No. 1 in sportsequipment sales, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

And in the wake of ESPN’s decision, niche cable and satellite channels in the outdoors space are casting their bait in hopes of attracting a bigger swath of that audience.

‘Ardent’ Fan Base
While audience numbers are smaller on those outdoors-devoted networks than on ESPN2, the outdoors channels hope advertisers will be attracted to a targeted, hard-to-reach audience.

“Do you want a lot of eyeballs or do you want the right eyeballs?” Outdoor Channel senior vice president of marketing and research Denise Conroy-Galley says. “Our base is more targeted and more ardent.”

This summer, Outdoor Channel— possessing the largest potential audience in outdoor TV, with 36 million households — bolstered its fishing lineup by acquiring four shows from ESPN2’s “ESPN Outdoors” catalog, including Buccaneers and Bones, with celebrity anglers such as Tom Brokaw and Michael Keaton.

Former ESPN host Jerry McKinnis selected Outdoor Channel as the home for shows from his production company CSE, including Madfin Shark, Spanish Fly and Zona!.

The network also picked up educational show Fishing University from Comcast- owned Versus.

“We have more time, particularly more primetime and more weekend daytime hours, to devote to [outdoors programming], because this is our core topic,” Outdoor Channel CEO Roger Werner says, though he conceded some show producers are not pleased to be leaving the worldwide sports leader. “I don’t think any of them relish the thought of leaving ESPN, [but] I think they see us as the next best alternative.”

McKinnis, whose The Fishin’ Hole ended a 30-year run on ESPN this year, expressed some sadness about leaving that network, but acknowledged the changing landscape of the outdoor TV industry.

“My show was the first [outdoor] show they did in 1980,” McKinnis says. “I have ESPN blood in my veins. It was a little bit of a bummer when they decided to not broadcast half-hour produced shows, but I saw it coming and I knew why.”

ESPN has telecast events, including soccer matches, and editions of SportsCenter on weekend mornings on ESPN2.

McKinnis will still maintain a working relationship with ESPN for The Bassmasters. He recently purchased bass-fishing organization B.A.S.S. from the network with partners Don Logan, a retired AOL Time Warner executive and avid fisherman, and former Deloitte CEO Jim Copeland.

“They did a lot of great things for the sport of bass fishing,” McKinnis says of ESPN. “They helped us make stars … but they knew and we knew they couldn’t touch the grassroots bass fisherman like [niche networks] could.”

The Sportsman Channel bolstered its programming slate by picking up ESPN shows from widely-recognized producer Tom Miranda: Whitetail Country and Territories Wild.

While Sportsman reaches 26 million households, CEO Gavin Harvey says there are still challenges in getting advertisers who may have bought time on ESPN, to make the switch to a smaller, more closely-defined network.

Harvey says outdoors cable networks are the place to be if you’re an advertiser “trying to sell a deer rifle or you’re trying to sell boat loaders.” But advertisers don’t always see the value of the outdoors audience in non-endemic categories, such as automotive or insurance.

“Evangelizing the value of this vertical market to our distributors is another one of the challenges,” Harvey says, opining that every cable operator should have at least one outdoors/ lifestyle network on digital basic.

Going Mobile
Outside Television, which has carriage in popular resort towns across the country, is working to expand its distribution. It occupies the “active lifestyle” niche, or sports such as running and skiing. The channel, which reaches 2 million viewers a week in resort markets, reaches a more affluent audience than the hunting/fishing networks, CEO Mark Burchill says.

“They are very different types of people and they’re looking for different types of programming,” he says. “We see ourselves as complementary to those networks, not competitive.”

Toronto-based WFN, which has 4 million subscribers, also wants to make a bigger splash in 2011. Next month, it launches a number of mobile advertisements and portals and executives are bullish about the response so far from the advertiser community.

“We think we have the tiger by the tail,” Rubenstein says. “There was a void in the marketplace [and] a lot of money being spent by advertisers trying to reach the audience. We have the skill set to deliver all of that.”