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Even Though They’re Fan Favorites, RSNs Are Gearing Up for the Future

The American public can never get enough of live sports — it’s the one DVR-proof product remaining. And what people love most of all is rooting for their hometown team, which gives additional clout to regional sports networks (RSNs) around the country. But even though all the top executives say these remain good times for RSNs, they all caution against becoming complacent, saying the shifting marketplace and evolving technology require constant innovation on their part. Here is a look at top management at some of the country’s larger RSNs and an update on their progress and the challenges they face.

Jeff Krolik, president
Michael Connelly, senior vice president and executive producer
Lindsay Amstutz, vice president of marketing (and assistant general managerfor the three Fox Sports RSNs in Southern California)

Fox has long had the largest RSN group in the country, with 22 networks that televise 44 NBA, NHL and MLB teams and more than 5,000 live sporting events annually. So executives such as president Jeff Krolik, executive producer Michael Connelly and marketing VP Lindsay Amstutz always have their hands full.

“We’ve had another good year on top of a series of good years and we’re expecting good things in the future,” Krolik said, pointing to research Fox Sports conducted with Nielsen that shows that RSNs are among the most essential networks for viewers, ranking with the broadcast networks and ahead of sports giant ESPN. “It makes sense because we have 150 local baseball games — the fans are passionate and they are evergreen, where HBO is going to have to replace Game of Thrones, and coming up with another hit is one of the hardest things to do.”

But, Krolik said, that doesn’t mean they ever take anything for granted. In the last year, Fox has invested in upgraded technology for their mobile trucks (new switchers, replay machines), purchased new high frame rate, super slo-mo cameras for every region, and built new sets for every pre- and postgame production. This fall will also bring the launch of new, improved graphics.

He points out that Fox Sports Detroit is one channel away from ESPN, which has vast national distribution but the audiences don’t differentiate. “Our standard has to be network quality and we take that seriously,” he said. “We have a history of innovation and quality and production has always been a high priority.”

Krolik calls this “the year of digital for us,” adding that all distributors, including multichannel video programming distributors now have deals in place with Fox Sports for fans to stream games; this enhances TV Everywhere for cable and allows RSNs to reach cord-cutters through the MVPDs, that are including RSNs in their most basic packages. “This is a significant milestone,” Krolik said, because “cord-cutting is real and it puts pressure on every aspect of the business.”

The Fox Sports RSNs have embraced technology in other ways, he added. “A few years ago we made the bet to pivot away from the desktop and text to social media and video and we now have millions of viewers using Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to watch video.”

Jon Litner, President

Fox has ownership stakes in 22 RSNs but one clearly stands out with its own identity: The YES Network.

YES has two advantages that put it over the top: it’s in New York, the nation’s largest media market, and it is home to MLB’s Yankees, the country’s preeminent sports franchise. (Sure, NBA’s Brooklyn Nets are there too, but this is the Yankees network.)

Not surprisingly, YES has been the country’s most watched RSN for 12 of the last 14 years and has been ranked among Forbes’ 10 most valuable sports brands for seven years running. Still, Jon Litner, who became president last year after heading NBC Sports Group, remains forward-thinking in the face of “the dynamic changes going on in the distribution marketplace. All of us have to constantly look internally and embrace the changes in viewing habits of a younger generation.”

To attract those younger viewers, YES is breaking up network programming into smaller segments for other platforms. “The genie is out of the bottle and we don’t want to put it back,” Litner said, adding that the network doesn’t yet differentiate its game telecasts for different devices but it is something it is discussing internally.

YES also became the first RSN to use Facebook Live to stream pregame show production meetings — it even has a sponsor for these streams. YES also has 11 sponsors for live-streamed games on the Fox Sports Go app. “We want to take advantage of Fox’s state-of-the art technology — it is proven and easy and quick and logical, which is what you want it to be.”

Since most fans don’t think of YES as a Fox-owned outlet, Litner said the network was “very aggressive” in its campaign to educate fans about using the app. “We put a real promotional push behind it,” he said, relying not just on Fox’s promotional material but adding “local flavor too.”

YES has also shaken things up in promotions and programming, in keeping with the shift by the staid Yankees organization to embrace the youth movement on the field. The network launched a light, even silly promotional campaign in the spring with the broadcasters participating in a yoga class. Litner said the network still respects Yankees tradition but “wanted to inject some youth and playfulness and joy.”

On the programming front, they launched a new series called Homegrown: The Path to Pinstripes which focuses on the team’s top minor leaguers, just as those players, such as Aaron Judge, have become crucial to the team’s present and future. “It was a strategic initiative that was more consistent with the way the Yankees were going,” Litner said.

David Preschlack, president, NBC Sports Regional Networks, and NBC Sports Group Platform and Content Strategy
Ted Griggs, president, group and strategic production and programming leader, NBC Sports Regional Networks
Bill Bridgen, president, group leader, NBC Sports RegionalNetworks

Soon after David Preschlack joined NBC Sports Regional Networks as president last year he set about restructuring the set-up for the group which has nine regional networks in more than 43 million homes.

“When I came in there were 11 direct reports and I needed to get it more streamlined,” Preschlack said, explaining that in a shifting marketplace he wanted to “become more nimble.”

He organized the company’s networks into an East and a West group and took two executives, Ted Griggs and Bill Bridgen, who had in-depth experience with the day-today running of individual RSNs and put one in charge of each, promoting Griggs to president, group and strategic production and programming leader and Bridgen to president, group leader. “I thought it would be more valuable having them in corporate roles, out of the day-to-day, doing work instead on multiple RSNs,” he said. (The group also aligned the RSN’s local ad sales teams with those of NBCUniversal’s owned televisionstations.)

But change has extended far beyond those moves. The group’s networks have been branded for Comcast as CSN Bay Area and CSN California but Preschlack switched them to NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports California in the spring. “We thought there was more value in this because NBC is a world-class brand,” Preschlack said, adding that while he is not yet ready to discuss expansion of this rebranding, it “was seamless and well-received by fans and advertisers.”

The experimenting is underway in rights deals too, from one with the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers that gives the network the rights for 15 direct-to-consumer games (the details of which are still being worked out) to the renewal of a deal with the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals for CSN Mid-Atlantic that resulted in the network taking some equity in team owner Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment and in Leonsis taking some equity in the RSN.

On the programming front, NBC Sports RSN created a multiplatform documentary about gender in sports called Tomboy, which ran on the RSN’s platforms and NBC stations around the country. “That was really important for us,” Preschlack said. “If we rely only on games, that’s limiting for us. We want to be the storyteller in our market. We will keep doing these projects.”

That willingness to take risks is essential in a changing marketplace, whether it’s in programming or other arenas. “The RSN business is strong but you can’t be complacent at all,” he said. “You can’t sit in the conference room debating what will work.”

“RSNs are like petri dishes where you can try new things in the market — if they don’t work we can stop doing it quickly and if it works we can scale it. We just have to be open-minded.”

Sean McGrail, president and CEO

In New England, where the Patriots win all the time with a mix of constants (Bill Belichick and Tom Brady) and change (everyone else), the New England Sports Network’s approach is a natural one: steady leadership under Sean McGrail — who has been at NESN for 32 years and president since 2000 — that succeeds through relentless change.

The service is in more than 4 million homes but is also distributed outside of New England as NESN National to approximately 5 million more homes; and its website is the 12th-most visited sports site in the country.

Over the years, NESN has been a technology leader, being the first RSN to produce every game and studio show in high-definition and the first to bring automation into studio productions. This year, the network, which is controlled by the owners of the Boston Red Sox (MLB) and Boston Bruins (NHL), launched in-market streaming on a website and through the NESNgo app.

NESN is also in the process of retrofitting its plant for 4K, McGrail said.

“We constantly stay on the forefront of technology and have to anticipate trends,” he added, explaining that there are advantages to being independent — “we have sole control of our destiny” — but there aren’t always resources to test new services.

In the last nine months NESN has renegotiated 27 distribution deals, maintaining them all, McGrail said, and he believes that the stability of his staff — many, like him, have been around for two decades or longer — has an impact. “We regularly interface with our distributors and clients. That’s certainly a part of our success.”

“We are also constantly in production mode because we can’t rely on content produced by others,” said McGrail, pointing to programming ranging from a David Ortiz documentary to an ongoing kids show NESN Clubhouse. “We have eight to 10 hours of live production a day.”

“Like most in the sports industry we are in a time of transition,” McGrail said. “Sports remains the last home of communal live viewing and the business fundamentals are very strong but the challenge is the content expansion, the plethora of options we are competing with. We have to up our game every year.”

Patrick Crumb, president

This summer the Root Sports brand has been sidelined in favor of its parent company, which has renamed the networks as AT&T SportsNet in the Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions.

“We’ve been meaning to do this for a while,” said president Patrick Crumb, adding that the Root brand had never fully taken hold and the AT&T brand and globe logo are iconic. The makeover’s timing also made sense, he said, as the six-year-old Root logo and graphics had reached the end of their “useful life.”

The rebranding comes complete with a new look, one that is decidedly more ambitious. “We’ve married the graphics with real photography and video,” he said, so the show’s opening can feature images of local landmarks in each market blended with highlights from previous games. “You can drop in the walk-off homer from last night,” Crumb said. “It enhances the local connection and it’s more evergreen.”

Behind the scenes, AT&T Sports Networks are overperforming with advertisers, according to Crumb, but he acknowledges that even during good times for a strong business like RSNs, “there is some subscriber pressure on traditional platforms and we’re feeling it. But we’re trying to pivot onto newer platforms.”

Still, he cautions against hyping some of the changes. Crumb said that while AT&T Sports is trying to build its own branded app for live-streaming, the numbers it has seen from baseball are “not overwhelming. The screen of first resort is still the big screen in the living room.”

And while over-the-top devices are “becoming much more significant, some are not geared toward sports because [viewers] want skinnier bundles.”

Crumb believes many of these changes are coming, though maybe not as quickly as everyone thinks, whether it’s sponsors inserting unique ads into streaming or the full-on arrival of 4K. (And, in that case, he said, it’s not 4K but HDR, or high dynamic range, “that is more of the game changer, where the picture really pops.”) So, while any deals for new trucks ensure they are 4K capable, he said the transformation would take time.

Crumb also warned RSNs need to be careful not to use each new statistics package or high-tech breakthrough just because it is available. “They can be distractions and sometimes you need to get out of the way of the game and let it happen,” he said. “Our philosophy is to look for things that enhance the telecast’s ability to tell stories.”

For AT&T, that means investing in RF cameras that can move around and “convey the in-stadium experience from different perspectives,” and super slo-mo cameras — each of its RSNs has gone from having just one to having four.

One thing is certain, however, and it’s that the audience will let you know what they think of it all. “These days with social media, whether you seek it or not you get a lot of feedback,” Crumb said.

Dan Finnerty, senior vice president and general manager

“In an era where audiences are accustomed to accessing entertainment when, where, and how they want, the live event and exclusive programming of regional sports networks have only increased their relative value to distributors, advertisers and consumers,” said Dan Finnerty of Spectrum Sports Networks, part of Charter Communications, which owns two RSNs in Los Angeles.

Finnerty said RSNs have added value, especially with younger viewers, thanks to streaming. SportsNet in LA was the first network to enable in-market streaming of NBA games when it launched in 2012 and the app has had year-to-year viewership growth of Lakers games every year since, Finnerty said.

Technology has also changed game coverage, of course. “We are always evaluating and sampling the latest innovations in technology to determine what makes sense for us as an RSN,” he said. “We work hard to emphasize not just the stories but the fundamentals of the game, utilizing slow-motion replay, robotic cameras, advanced telestration tools and new school statistics.”

In Los Angeles, though, the biggest news in the RSN world is the ongoing distribution feud over the Los Angeles Dodgers’ MLB games. At the heart of the dispute, the blackout of Dodgers games on SportsNet LA to fans who subscribe to DirecTV, Cox and, well, anything other than Charter, which bought the rights to run the network from Time Warner Cable.

But Finnerty insists that all is well in the City of Angels — and not just because the Dodgers are tearing through an historic season and the Lakers seem relevant again after drafting self-marketing genius Lonzo Ball. Regardless of the distribution battle, the network is at least potentially available to “90% of the L.A. market,” Finnerty said, adding that “ratings are almost equal to the last decade when games were on every distributor.”