Skip to main content

New game plan for growth

Angling for more distribution, CNN/Sports Illustrated
sprucing up with a freshly minted sports-rights deal, six brands of live sports and more specialty shows. In the process, AOL Time Warner's sports network is shedding its all-news model to compete with cable sports titans ESPN and Fox Sports Net.

"Our core mission is news and storytelling and analysis," says Steve Robinson, executive vice president and GM of the five-year-old cable net. "But in order to gain distribution—which is our major goal right now—we need to diversify our programming."

As of July, CNN/SI counted
18 million subs and isn't rated by Nielsen yet (networks typically start Nielsen metering at 30 million subs). That translates to just 35% of the 80 million U.S. cable homes. CNN/SI is on most MSOs' digital tiers, but its only analog distribution is on Time Warner's cable system.

CNN/SI is expected to announce today its first exclusive sports-rights deal, a two-year agreement with the National Lacrosse League. The contract, worth an undisclosed amount, gives CNN/SI rights to professional lacrosse through 2003.

It is the type of deal CNN/SI can manage right now. "We're not ready to go after the NFL yet," Robinson says.

The plan is to grow incrementally, going after deals with nascent leagues and sports.

CNN/SI is experimenting with its first Triple A minor-league baseball telecast tonight and may carry some AAA playoff games in the fall. Robinson says he has explored carrying NCAA college sports, other women's sports and niche leagues.

But a lot of distribution ground needs to be made up. Networks with 40 million to 60 million subs are considered medium size, and CNN/SI's main rivals are almost fully distributed. As of April, ESPN had nearly 83 million subs, ESPN2 about 78 million and Fox Sports Net 71 million.

"To be a player in cable, you have to be in half the country or more, unless you're delivering an incredibly underserved niche," says Tim Spengler a top media buyer at Initiative Media. "But, even then, they are going to be beating their heads against the wall competing with ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Sports Net."

CNN/SI isn't the only one tinkering. ESPNews, with 23 million subs, also is maneuvering to jump-start its distribution. It relaunches Sept. 7 with a new format that resembles ESPN's popular Web site, featuring more headlines, statistics, real-time scoring and interactivity.

Ad buyers are applauding CNN/SI's programming changes, though cautiously.

"They have to get metered because the accountability is essential, particularly in the soft ad market, when people are out there begging," says TN Media's Executive Director Howard Nass of Nielsen ratings.

Nass says the changes will attract more ad dollars: "Live events always mean more than just general talk."

To get bigger, the network is taking advantage of its familial ties with Turner Sports, piggybacking on some of the group's deals, including NASCAR, WUSA soccer league, Wimbledon and the Goodwill Games.

CNN/SI is in its second year of Wimbledon coverage and its first year of NASCAR and WUSA deals. This summer, the network aired 20 hours of Wimbledon matches and 11 WUSA games. Its NASCAR package covers 16 qualifying races. When TNT carries the Goodwill Games later this summer, CNN/SI
will rebroadcast most of its sister net's three-hour morning shows.

It has also added more specialty shows, including NASCAR Plus, Golf Plus
and This Week in the NBA,
which utilize exclusive video from Turner Sports partners.

After the AOL Time Warner merger, the net's future was in question because of its slight distribution. While AOL Time Warner has recently trumpeted Headline News and CNN, there has been little said about CNN/SI. The sports net was slated for new digs in CNN's Atlanta headquarters, but the space went to Headline News for a new studio instead. Robinson says that the change was not a demotion for CNN/ SI, that Headline News' wider distribution gave it precedence.