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Getting Into the Game

There's no doubt that sports programming is scoring with TV viewers, as high-profile live events generate record-breaking ratings for cable sports networks.

While entertainment networks such as Esquire Network, Spike TV and IFC can’t compete with ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or NBCSN for the TV rights to ratings-rich National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League or National Basketball Association games, executives said, entertainment shows that use sports as a backdrop are drawing the elusive, live-sports-loving male viewer who would not ordinarily tune in.

And other networks, such as BET, AXS TV and Spike TV, are looking to pin down avid sports fans through live ring sports content that appeals to both younger and older viewers.

“We all look up to ESPN as amazing TV-sports storytellers,” said Matt Hanna, head of original programming for NBCUniversal’s Esquire Network. “If we can come close to that type of storytelling that ESPN does, it would go a long way with our audience.”

Records for Big Events

It’s hard to dispute the viewer appeal of sports, with its unpredictable drama, intrigue and action. Nor is it easy to deny the ratings punch packed by live major league pro sports or tentpole international events.

Just this year, marquee sports telecasts have set several cable programming and sports ratings records:
■ ESPN’s Ohio State-Oregon college football playoffs championship game in January drew a cable programming record 33.6 million viewers.
■ TBS’ April 4 telecast of the NCAA men’s Final Four semifinal between Kentucky and Wisconsin drew the biggest-ever cable audience for a college basketball game with 16 million viewers.
■ Fox and Telemundo’s combined 26.7 million viewers for the July 5 U.S.-Japan Women’s World Cup soccer match was the biggest soccer audience in U.S. television history.

Rights to those high-profile sports properties—long-term deals for the NBA, MLB and the NFL all top the $1 billion mark—are unattainable for most entertainment-based networks.

Instead, those networks are capturing the interest of avid fans by infusing sports themes into reality and scripted shows. FXX’s comedy The League, which kicks off its seventh and final season Sept. 9, has been successful in mining fantasy football for laughs.

BET just completed its eighth and final season of football-themed comedy The Game. The series, which uses a fictional team as a backdrop to depict the relationship between athletes, their friends and their families, still holds the record for the most-watched cable comedy series premiere, having drawn 7.7 million viewers in 2011.

HBO recently greenlit a second season of its football-themed dramedy series, Ballers, starring actor and WWE personality Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The show, a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of pro football players after they hang up their cleats and retire, drew 8.9 million viewers across HBO’s branded platforms for its June 21 debut, the network said.

“There are a lot of reasons why this show is as popular and loved as it is,” HBO president Michael Lombardo said during last month’s Television Critics Association summer tour in Pasadena, Calif. “There’s good writing, it deals with football, it’s set in Miami….But the pre-eminent reason is the heart and soul of the show, which is Dwayne Johnson.”

Starz on Aug. 22 launched the second season of the LeBron James-produced dramedy Survivor’s Remorse, which chronicles the meteoric and often-chaotic rise of a young basketball star navigating the ups and downs of newfound fame.

Even music-themed Fuse has strapped on its sports helmet with weekly coverage of the female football-oriented Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League), in which scantily clad women block and tackle their way to the championship.

Esquire’s Friday Night Tykes follows a different kind of football player—kids participating in the Texas Youth Football Association. It’s the network’s most-watched show among total viewers and among advertiser-coveted 18-49-year-olds.

More importantly for Esquire, Tykes’ audience is nearly 60% male.

Sports-themed programming is one of the best genres for networks looking to build up viewer recognition—particularly among young men—to start with, Esqiure’s Hanna said.

“There was never going to be any live sports component on the network, but we did think that sports storytelling could be an important foundational pillar to build our network around, so we were very aggressive about identifying what types of stories that might be,” Hanna said. The network is already exploring a spinoff of Tykes, he added, although he would not provide details.

Esquire Network has stayed aggressive in the sports genre, earlier this month launching The Agent, a reality series in which four football agents look to recruit the next NFL superstars. The network’s live coverage of July’s running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, was up 17% among adults 18-49 and 23% with men 18-49 compared to last year, according to Hanna.

IFC this October will take to the ice with Benders, which follows a team of friends bonded by their irrational obsession with their awful men’s ice hockey team.

Christine Lubrano, IFC senior VP of original programming, said that a friendship-themed comedy set against a sports backdrop will hopefully appeal to men and women.

“I think when you have a show that’s surrounding a team or a sport, that camaraderie shines though and becomes very identifiable to a larger audience,” Lubrano said.

While the network doesn’t have any major plans for future sportsrelated shows, Lubrano said the Jim Serpico and Tom Sellitti-produced Benders would provide IFC with some sports-infused action that will differentiate it from the network’s other comedy programming.

“If there is a good framework for a show—hockey being the framework for this show—that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.

Playing the Live Game

Not every entertainment network is content with watching from the bench when it comes to live sports programming. Spike TV, AXS TV and BET have recently added live boxing and mixed martial arts programming to score with male viewers.

BET last month partnered with Roc Nation Sports to televise nine live boxing cards over the next 18 months as it looks to broaden its reach beyond African-American women, network officials said.

AXS TV features live mixed-martial arts content on a weekly basis as part of a Friday-night block of sports fare that falls under the “AXS TV Fights” banner. While the music, film and documentary-focused network is not Nielsen-rated, executives say that the live sports block generates high social-media engagement from young males discussing the matches.

AXS TV Fights CEO Andrew Simon said the network uses its block of sports programming to promote its non-sports-related shows to an audience that doesn’t regularly tune into the 42 million-subscriber service. He added the popularity of Ultimate Fighting Champion women’s titleholder Ronda Rousey has recently attracted more women to its live fight programming.

“Almost all of our MMA, kickboxing and Muay Thai events feature female fighters as the sport continues to thrive across all demographics,” Simon said. “That said… [the sports block] definitely attracts a male-skewing audience to the network.”

Spike TV earlier this year teamed with promotion company Premier Boxing Champions on a monthly series of live shows through 2016. The network paired the boxing shows with its monthly Bellator mixed-martial-arts shows to create a Friday-night block of live sports programming that is resonating with its young, male viewers.

Spike’s sports block has been particularly important in maintaining the network’s young male viewership as it tries to expand its reach among women with original series and such miniseries as Tut, said Jon Slusser, Spike TV senior VP of sports and branded entertainment.

“We are still keeping those young males, but what we’re also seeing is we’re expanding on that base, including bringing in older and diverse viewers with our sports programming,” Slusser said.

Given sports’ continued strong ratings performances, network executives said they will keep looking to add its action and drama to any and all types of programming.