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Serving Fans, Filling Niches

Single-Sport cable networks are still relatively young compared to the three-decades-old ESPN and the mass-audience broadcast networks that televise live sports. But they have become a vital part of sports advertisers’ marketing mix.

Networks such as NFL Network, MLB Network, NHL Network, NBA TV, Golf Channel, Tennis Channel and Fox Soccer serve many purposes for both viewers and advertisers, while continuing to expand in improved programming and production.

“I’m a huge fan of those networks,” says Adam Schwartz, a sports specialist ad buyer at Horizon Media. “They may not get the huge ratings of broadcast networks, but they draw the passionate fans. And for advertisers who can’t spend massive dollars for sports programming, it gives them a venue to have a presence in each sport.”

Fox Soccer (a rebranding of Fox Soccer Channel) underwent a major relaunch on Aug. 13 in conjunction with the start of the Barclays Premier League season in England, debuting a new name, new graphics and a multiplatform makeover that includes better integration of Fox Soccer, premium service Fox Soccer Plus and, along with broadband service FoxSoccerTV.

Lengthy Tune-In Times

Studio shows like Match Day and Goals on Sunday now originate from new sets on the Fox Network Center lot from Studio A and B, where Fox NFL Sunday and other Fox network sports studio shows also originate.

Fox Soccer recently lost TV rights for U.S. Major League Soccer matches to NBC and NBC Sports Network after this year. But David Nathanson, Fox Soccer executive vice president and general manager, points to leadership among single-sport networks in average viewer length of tune-in time. Key remaining assets include UEFA Champions League matches and Italy’s Serie A, along with English contests.

Nathanson cites investments in new and expanded sets, opening up opportunities for more segment sponsors on the studio shows. New advertisers in the fold include Apple, Burger King, KFC and Samuel Adams.

NHL Network is also giving its NHL Live studio, in the same building as its NHL Store Powered by Reebok in midtown New York City, a complete makeover with an entire new set and control room.

After a test run last year with permanent cameras in four of the league’s arenas, this year the network is in the process of installing cameras in all 30 arenas.

Mark Preisler, NHL Network executive producer, says the goal each night is to be able to show footage from a team’s morning practice and pregame skates and to do live interviews from the various arenas before the games. A new multipurpose studio in Stamford, Conn., currently under construction, is to open up next year. Beginning in mid-September, the network will televise more preseason games than last year, and it will carry 78 feeds of live games during the season.

NFL Network sports a new broadcast team for the Thursday Night Football games that kick off on Nov. 11, with main NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock joining veteran play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler in the booth. The network has also added Kurt Warner as an analyst who will appear on the pre- and postgame shows each week, joining returning analysts Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders, both Hall of Famers.

Signature nightly show NFL Total Access (7 p.m.) has undergone a complete overhaul with a new look, a faster pace and more analysts. The network now has permanent cameras at every team’s practice facilities, which will enable both Total Access and Around the League (5-7 p.m.) to present live reports as news happens from each facility.

Lockout End Aids NFL

Mark Quenzel, NFL senior vice president of programming and production, says a lot of fans discovered the network during the past few weeks as the NFL lockout was settled. Over a three-day period from July 26-28, immediately following the then-tentative agreement being reached, the network averaged 290,000 viewers per night—a 202% increase over the same period in 2010.

“We’re going to be doing more original programming, in addition to live games and live information and news shows,” Quenzel says. “We are no longer just about televising repeats of classic games. And because we serve only one master, the NFL, our goal is to be first, accurate and the most comprehensive place to get NFL news.”

NBA TV, now operated for the NBA by Turner Sports, is in a tougher spot, with a current lockout of players and an impasse in negotiations between team owners and the Players Association. The network is left hoping the dispute is resolved in time to start the regular season, if not to get some exhibition game telecasts on.

NBA TV is scheduled to televise 96 live regular season games in 2011-12.

MLB Network continues its live primetime airings on Tuesday, Thursday (often a day game as well), Friday and Saturday through the end of the season. The service typically alters its September schedule to showcase contests with pennant-race implications.

The network won’t air any live games during baseball’s upcoming postseason. But it will have reporters and analysts at all game locations and will have a set at the World Series site to produce live pre- and postgame coverage each night, CEO Tony Petitti says. Location reports will complement studio out put from headquarters in Secaucus, N.J.

“We feel good about where we are and the progress we’ve made,” Petitti says of the network, now in its third year. During the first six weeks of the third quarter, the network averaged 185,000 viewers in primetime, up 26% over last year.

NBC Nets Swing for Golf

Golf Channel cites its best ratings growth since the network added PGA coverage in 2007 and expects some strong promotional help from sister channels in the NBCUniversal fold.

Mike McCarley, who took over as president of the Comcast-owned Golf Channel in late January after Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal, says the next phase of integration into the new NBC Sports Group will be seen in the fourth quarter. During the PGA Tour playoffs and the President’s Cup tournaments, there will be lots of promotion of the network on NBC.

Further, Golf’s David Feherty Show finale on Sept. 13 will tie in with NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast on Sept. 11. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will be a guest on Feherty’s show two nights after the Cowboys play the New York Jets—prompting promotional mentions on SNF.

Tennis Channel is gearing up for its centerpiece U.S. Open tennis coverage, which begins Aug. 29 and runs through Sept. 11. It shares cable coverage of the Open with ESPN and in all will televise 240 hours, including 75 hours of live matches. After the tournament comes men’s and women’s Tour Finals and Davis Cup and Fed Cup finals.

Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel chairman/ CEO, says Davis Cup finals ratings were up 20% and Fed Cup finals rose 85% last year vs. 2009, and he is hoping for another strong ratings boost this year. Overall ad revenue is up 50% this year, Solomon says, bolstered by new advertisers including American Express, Travelers Insurance and Blue Delta Water, among others. He adds the network has grown its $1 million-plus ad-spenders.