Crumb Eyes More Subs, GM for Root Sports Southwest

As Root Sports Southwest progressed through its debut day ahead of its initial airing of Houston Rockets' NBA coverage, Patrick Crumb was already looking ahead.

The president of DirecTV Sports Networks, which is operating the service, is eyeing more distribution growth, looking to add key personnel, including the general manager position, and wants to bolster the regional sports network’s programming roster.

Borne from DirecTV and AT&T U-verse’s purchase of CSN Houston from chapter 11 bankruptcy, Root Sports Southwest, which will also be the local home to MLB’s Houston Astros, signed on at 6 a.m. (CT) with a poker show and was scheduled to air sports talk  programming and pregame fare previewing its Rockets-Memphis Grizzlies presentation at 7 p.m.

DirecTV Sports Network is introducing the service with a multimedia ad campaign, featuring outdoor billboards, print, radio and online ads, as well as positions on social networks, including Facebook and Twitter. There is also in-arena messaging at the Toyota Center, the Rockets' home court, as well as ads in media guides and programs.  DirecTV and AT&T are also employing various marketing tactics to their subscribers.

At launch, the network, the fourth to operate under the Root Sports banner, counts some 4 million subs through carriage on its owners, as well as Comcast, whose NBC Sports unit formerly operated CSN Houston. That’s four times more than CSN Houston held via Comcast and a handful of smaller providers.  Crumb said the network has 80% coverage in Houston coming out of the gate. AT&T U-verse has a presence in Dallas and other parts of the state, while DirecTV is available throughout the TV territory.

Crumb said the goal for the network is to achieve 100% carriage – up to a potential 9 million households -- in Texas and the rest of its TV territory that encompasses Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and the eastern part of New Mexico, factoring in restrictions for other NBA teams in those areas.

Noting DirecTV Sports has extant relationships with distributors from Root Sports Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain and Northwest, Crumb said the affiliate team has had preliminary discussions about Root Sports Southwest. “We’re looking to further engage with the distributors pretty much immediately,” he said.

He declined to discuss the network’s rate card, or characterize it relative to its predecessor’s reported $4 monthly subscriber ask within its core market and 70 cents elsewhere.

A spokesman for Suddenlink, which was one of the major holdouts for CSN Houston, said “we have been contacted by the new owners of the network and are scheduling time to talk further with them.”

Calling it the first “hot swap in RSN history,” Crumb said DirecTV Sports had to change out Comcast systems, software and servers. DirecTV Sports’ technical crew has been on the ground in Houston since last week and the company had been working on the on-air graphics package since summer.  Root Sports Southwest is utilizing the studio that was part of Comcast’s facility in downtown Houston.

Relative to personnel, the bankruptcy reorganization resulted in between 70 and 75 people losing their jobs, while 45, notably on-air talent for the Rockets and Astros, were retained.  There are currently job postings for general manager, national sales and account executives.

Crumb said he interviewed multiple candidates for the GM post, while he and DirecTV Sports executive team were in Houston last week.  “We hope to ID someone quickly and have them in the seat soon,” he said.

On the affiliate side, DirecTV Sports’ centralized team works from headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., with a point person on the ground in the RSN’s home markets.

In addition to Rockets and Astros telecasts, which will be supplemented by pre- and post-game and other related programming, Root Sports Southwest will show Big Sky and Southern Conference football, plus Mountain West and Conference USA pigskin and hoops action. Rice basketball is in the mix, flanked by a coaching show, as well as a University of Houston coach’s basketball program.

Simulcasts of The Rich Eisen Show and The Dan Patrick Show, both staples of DirecTV’s Audience Network and other outlets, are on the RSN's weekday schedule.

Crumb said he has had conversations with the Houston Dynamo, which also was part of the CSN Houston lineup and hopes to have a deal in place when the MLS club kicks off its 2015 season. He said high schools sports could also join the Root Sports Southwest roster. “Football is very important in Texas,” he understated.

Ratings will begin in a few days, and Crumb was encouraged by how the Rockets – currently residing atop the NBA’s Southwest Division – have performed in the Houston DMA during early-season national telecasts.

Crumb recognizes that much work lies ahead for the network to establish itself with a largely disaffected sports community.

“Most of them have gone without games for about two years, and had no way to switch providers that carried [CSN Houston]. Obviously, that’s less than the ideal way to launch,” he said.

Still, he’s sanguine about the prospects: “Root Sports Southwest represents an opportunity to work with distributors and fans and build this network. The opportunity is great. It’s a large territory, but three big providers are in place. There is a very talented staff. We’re very excited to launch Root Sports Southwest.”