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ESPN Plays PPV Game

ESPN will extend its brand into the pay-per-view event business with a series of competitions and sports-oriented programming it hopes will help jump-start the sluggish category.

The network will commit its extensive promotional and marketing resources to the venture, with hopes of offering at least one PPV event a month, ranging from college sports and martial-arts programming to original movies, according to ESPN vice president of interactive sales Matt Murphy.

ESPN launched its PPV service June 6-9 with ESPN College Grand Slam, a package of up to 24 games from the Super Regional Round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Baseball Championships.

The package, at a suggested retail of $19.95, was expected to receive extensive promotion on ESPN's cable channels as well as the Web site.

Very visible

Murphy said the ability to cross-promote the PPV events over several ESPN vehicles will build awareness.

"Even if the system doesn't run one spot or one newspaper ad, 85 million consumers will see something on our air about the event," he said. "We bring a marketing presence that no one can match, whether it's on our networks, through or our radio network."

ESPN PPV will attempt to develop financially viable events in a category dominated by boxing and wrestling. Last year, the two ring sports accounted for 94% of all PPV event revenue.

But Murphy believes that there is an audience for smaller niche sports events and programming.

"If you look at the event category, it's basically boxing and wrestling, so we feel the opportunity is right," he said, though he did not make revenue or buy-rate projections. "I don't know what event could get to boxing and wrestling levels, but I think we can do a handful of smaller events that in the aggregate could be significant. It's a big slice of pie that we feel we can grow."

Having learned from the demise of the ESPN Extra 24-hour PPV channel, launched in 1999, the programmer will steer clear of the stand-alone network business. Rather, it will provide programming to other PPV distributors.

The network is talking to all of the major distributors, as well as satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. to secure event carriage.

"It's tough to program on a 24-hour basis, so under this format, we can focus on events better," Murphy said. "We're really excited about it and we hope to move the needle for the existing product and create incremental revenue for new ones."

While In Demand is not carrying ESPN College Grand Slam
— the network had already set its schedule when it received ESPN PPV's proposal — In Demand senior vice president of programming and development Dan York said the network's contributions to the PPV event category are welcome.

"It is a positive development for the category," he said.

50/50 splits

Murphy said suggested retail prices will vary from event from event, but the network will insist on a 50/50 split on the revenue from operators.

"We've been fairly vocal about a 50/50 proposition and I think operators have appreciated that," he said.

Along with baseball, the network has teamed with K-1 to co-market and distribute five martial-arts events over the next twelve months beginning in August, Murphy said.

ESPN PPV also plans to offer fantasy league specials featuring in-depth news, analysis, commentary and player recommendations from ESPN's on-air personalities and talent line-up of former professional athletes.

Also on tap are original movies from its ESPN Original Entertainment division, including A Season on the Brink
and The Junction Boys, as well as additional programs from ESPN's vast library.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.